Editor's Comment

11th February 2005 at 00:00
It is only fair that the Tories should steal some of New Labour's FE clothes to dress up their policies for the election manifesto. After all, Labour stole the cloth from them in the first place.

The garb appeared elegant when unveiled by shadow FE spokesman Chris Grayling last week (page 2). But some in the trade, particularly hard-pressed lecturers, say it is already somewhat threadbare. Policies that channel even more 14 to 16-year-olds from school to college will not attract their votes.

In case the Conservatives had not noticed, nearly 200,000 young teenagers already split their time between school and college, and even get a taste of the workplace. It is big business in Knowsley, Sheffield and Tower Hamlets.

So far, what is on offer from Michael Howard's team is New Labour with knobs on (vouchers).

So, it is the vouchers that make all the difference, is it? Don't count on it. If they really prove to be a politically viable option, there is a strong chance Labour will steal the idea.

Look at the Tory general election manifesto of 1997: vouchers to pay for flat-rate tuition fees in HE, two-year associate (in other words foundation) degrees that could be taken at FE college, and one in five schools to specialise within four years.

Labour went even further, unashamedly stealing the trousers of Kenneth Baker who, as Education Secretary in 1986, created city technology colleges. These grew up to become Labour's Academies, which are now being pushed into the FE sector, with 12 planned in the shape of Arcadia boss Philip Green's 16 to 19 "Topshop" Retail Fashion Academy.

What about Tory proposals to abolish the Learning and Skills Council and release pound;250 million for spending on 14 to 16 vocational education? Well, given that the average life of a quango is seven years, LSC chief executive Mark Haysom and his team will be looking for new jobs by 2007, whoever wins the election in May.

But why view all this in a negative light? Maybe, after decades of dispute, a consensus over diversity and choice for all 14 to 19-year-olds is emerging, with a genuine offer of workplace training and education, blended to suit the different academic and vocational needs of each individual.

If you spot this, don't shout too loudly. Or else one or other of the parties will rock the boat, just to make different waves - that's politics.

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