Fancy a cap and taper? Not likely

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Are you ignorant of government policy? Ashamed of your lack of understanding? Want to be in the know and at one with the policy wonks?

One of the latest words to creep into the political lexicon is "contestability".

Every college and training company is supposed to be in on it. But what does it mean? Competition?

"No, it is much more than that," said the Department for Education and Skills spokesperson when the word crept into the Government's first response to the Foster review of FE last autumn.

But what the hell is it?

A trawl around the DfES websites drew a blank, so FErret Googled the word.

Lo and behold, an answer appeared instantly: "The mere threat of new firms entering a market means existing firms act competitively, ie, lowest costs, prices and profits.

"The theory of contestable markets argues that what is important is not actual but potential competition."

So, that's what ministers want from FE.

Excited, if a little appalled by the definition, I thought I would try "cap and taper". Sounds a bit like the sort of thing people ask for in one of those over-priced unisex hairdressers I find myself in when I can't find a decent old-fashioned barber.

"Cap and taper sirmadam? That'll be 50 quid."

Sadly, the meaning is even more sinister.

In case you do not know, this is what the Learning and Skills Council is doing to college budgets. Not actually "cutting" but "capping and tapering".

On this expression, the search engines drew a near blank, so we approached the colleges being capped and tapered.

Sue Whitham, head of the Sixth Form Colleges Forum secretariat, was immediately able to help.

"Cap and taper may not be a cut but it certainly feels like one, according to my members," she says. "It is what the LSC is imposing like never before since they don't have enough money."

Still, it seems even the more long-established terms have some of us scratching our heads. To the online TES Staffroom, where one of the latest entries was from someone wanting to know the difference between skills for life, basic skills and key skills, for a job application.

This person clearly needs to go on a course in sector-speak but who was it?

The author said heshe used to be a learndirect centre manager and tutor, then added the following posting: "What ever it is, I'll be teaching it from next week because I got the job. Didn't seem appropriate to ask in the middle of an interview."

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