Disappointing choices

3rd February 2012 at 00:00

With the unveiling of the FE Choices website, intended to offer clear information to would-be students and employers about colleges and training providers, now is a good time to examine the progress made towards transparency.

Michael Davis, chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), got in trouble when he suggested that colleges were dragging their feet on the issue. Many people thought that colleges provide more than enough information as it is: so they do, but it is not presented to potential students in a transparent, comparable form. We have yet to create the Gocompare.com of FE.

And we are still waiting: FE Choices is not up to the job. There are frustrating gaps in the data. Take Newcastle College's private provider, Intraining Group, which is rated "outstanding" by Ofsted and receives #163;25 million from the Skills Funding Agency. FE Choices records that there is "not enough data to report a score" across all measures.

Similarly, if you want to know what the taxpayer gets from giving #163;10 million to McDonald's, you won't find it on FE Choices. Since it only trains its own staff, McDonald's does not report anything about whether its students improved their learning or progressed at work. So if you want independent information about whether applying for a McJob will lead to a dead-end in burger flipping or, as the company wants you to believe, a lifelong journey in learning, you won't find it here.

Some of this may be down to the difficulty of choosing measures that are applicable across such a diverse area of education as FE. But what is particularly striking is how the system falls down when it comes to employer views. The reaction of employers to the request for their views was surprisingly poor. In many cases, even when they did provide responses, they failed to answer most of the questions.

With nearly #163;43 million of adult skills funding, and a director who pocketed a #163;3 million dividend last year, Elmfield Training's results were obviously of interest. FE Choices has no data on progression, learner destinations or employment rates. Students gave it 8.8 out of 10. Employers, however, gave it 2.8.

Elmfield disputes the scores, but there is hardly any need because they are self-evidently incoherent. The breakdown shows that 50 out of 56 employers responded, but did not answer most of the questions. A third gave the lowest possible scores in response to the benefits of the training, but more than half said that they would recommend it. Perhaps they thought, "It's free, so what the hell."

These are the people that UKCES wants to put in charge of the skills system and yet, in too many cases, their only feelings about it are apathy or rage. It is ironic that in advocating these transparency measures, UKCES has put a dent in its case for employer leadership. Who knows what businesses will do when they get their hands on #163;250 million of skills funding.

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