Deja vu on the road to reform

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Just as Skills Development Scotland is created, the equivalent organisation in England is being disbanded, writes Jim Donaldson
Just as Skills Development Scotland is created, the equivalent organisation in England is being disbanded, writes Jim Donaldson

In april 2001, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) was launched in England. It heralded a comprehensive reform of post-16 education, integrating the planning and funding of all post-compulsory learning below higher education.

Not only was it a new organisation, it was claimed by government to be a new kind of organisation. It employed 5,000 staff in 47 offices in England and had magnificent custom-built headquarters in Coventry.

As part of the vision, it was agreed that more than 750 "non-executive directors", representing employers and the wider community, would work alongside salaried staff.

Their combined creative energy would deliver excellent results, and by 2010 young people and adults in England would have knowledge and productive skills matching the best in the world.

But seven years on, the 2001 plans to deliver increased participation and attainment through high-quality education and training are in tatters, and proposals to improve the delivery of adult and young people's skills have been published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in a White Paper, Raising Expectations: enabling the system to deliver.

The new plans will mean the dissolution of the LSC by 2010. Funding of pound;7 billion will be transferred to local authorities to help FE and sixth-form colleges deliver the reforms needed to raise the education and training leaving age to 18. Local authorities will again be responsible for offering all young people in their area a full menu of curriculum choice - diplomas and apprenticeships alongside GCSEs and A-levels.

The Government will direct pound;4bn a year, via a new funding agency, to streamline funding to colleges and training providers. It has taken only seven years for the LSC model, which promoted the close alignment of national and local priorities, to be sacrificed by ministers.

From 2010, it will be the local authorities that have the powers to commission more places in schools and colleges, contract with new providers of education and training in order to respond to the needs of young people, and work collaboratively with other local authorities to commission provision across coherent travel-to-learn areas.

The proposals outlined in the White Paper also have major implications for future funding and delivery of adult education in England. Skills Accounts and Train to Gain are only two features of a radically different model of organising the skills system from that found in Scotland.

The differences between the two countries are likely to become even more marked. In England, the role of government is to make sure customers are well-informed and supported, so that their demand for learning leads supply. The new proposals will include a dedicated skills funding agency that will fund FE colleges and other providers, following the purchasing decisions of adults and employers.

More significantly, the agency will maintain oversight of the performance management of the whole FE service and its responsiveness to employers' skills needs.

Local authorities will have responsibility for funding 14 to 18-year-olds in schools and colleges, but the White Paper is at pains to emphasise that ministers remain committed to FE college autonomy and deregulation.

The Government recognises that while the skills landscape has grown, the ever-increasing pace of change means new skills challenges must be met. In contrast with the approach to reform in 2001, government now believes local, not national, leadership is vital for successful delivery of education and training.

The vision for the organisations coming together to form Skills Development Scotland is similar to that for the much-trumpeted introduction of the LSC seven years ago.

Some 1,500 staff previously employed in Careers Scotland, the Scottish University for Industry and the delivery of key skills in Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have the task of developing partnerships at national, regional and local levels to drive forward real change in Scotland's skills performance.

It is refreshing to have ministers periodically evaluate the effectiveness of existing agencies. Yet too often, the full range of specialist staff engaged in education and training are not consulted in any meaningful way over planned reforms. The next months should provide an indication of the level of support for the reforms in England and Scotland and the appetite in both systems for yet more change.

Jim Donaldson was chief inspector with the Further Education Funding Council in England and is now a consultant.

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