Education 'food labels' mean FE menu needs an upgrade

20th November 2009 at 00:00

I concur with Alan Thomson ("FE must protect its reputation at all costs", November 6) when he accurately asserts that further education's reputation is "hard fought, deserved and precious" in relation to the Learning and Skills Council's (LSC) recent "revelations" that a number of colleges have allegedly been involved in the manipulation of student data to optimise funding gains and success statistics.

Whatever the whys and wherefores of such alleged creative accounting, we learn that as colleges move to a more self-regulated, improvement-focused, autonomous culture, the answer may well lie in "allowing the student as consumer to underpin quality by assessing courses against a list of pre- published data", like the food labelling approach, suggested by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

It apparently follows logically, then, that the consumer will look at published course data, compare it with some norm and purchase accordingly (for "How much fibre is in this portion?" read, presumably, "How beneficial is this course likely to be for me?").

However, what such a solution appears to overlook is the power of the consumer at the point of purchase. If, for example, they have left the school system with less than the benchmark of five GCSE A*-C grades (which constitutes more than half of the demand base of school-leavers), then how much currency will the consumer have? Furthermore, why is the onus only upon colleges to be "more responsive to student choice"? Again, on the supply side of the equation, colleges can only deliver the qualifications prescribed by awarding bodies such as Edexcel.

One factor not addressed in Mr Thomson's editorial is the question of innovation in relation to curriculum development: to use the food standards analogy, will consumers be purchasing ready meals or haute cuisine?

Having been responsible for the delivery of an entry-level programme in ICT for the past five years, my professional opinion is that it was past its sell-by date not at the point of purchase but at the point of market entry.

For example, to pass a part of an "internet and email" module, students had to "open an email, print its content and then write a reply". Five years on, there is still no update to the syllabus and we are expected to (re)engage and re-invigorate low-achieving students from September to June. I can assure you that my Ofsted-accredited "outstanding" colleagues and I are fully committed to serving up the food, to as high a standard as possible, but please, can we also ask, who writes the menu?

Tony Fort, Blackburn College.

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