FE Focus Editorial - Freedom from red tape comes at a price

7th January 2011 at 00:00

It would be premature to declare UK education a dystopian nightmare, but lines from The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood spring to mind whenever the Government mentions "freedom".

"There is more than one kind of freedom," says one of the novel's characters, who is in charge of education programmes. "Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it."

"Freedom from" is now the order of the day: freedom from central targets, from bureaucracy. And so a pound;150 million fund for colleges and sixth-forms in deprived areas will not be ringfenced and can be spent however principals wish. But as Atwood implied, gaining freedom from is often at a cost to our freedom to - and so the pound;150 million has come at the cost of a much larger cut to enrichment and tutorial activities (page 1).

The net result is that colleges can spend their money any way they like, if only they had any money.

There is perhaps one circumstance in which this might not matter, but it is hardly an optimistic thought. The cuts to enrichment are the answer to pressure to reduce the cost per student, in order to accommodate the raising of the participation age.

Since the Government has said it will continue raising the age for compulsory education, but will not introduce any penalties, we may simply see a rise in truancy rather than participation. If colleges and sixth- forms are paid for a certain number of students and 10 per cent never appear, they could probably find some money for enrichment.

But having to choose between a quality education for over-16s and a universal provision is a dispiriting thought. Kingsley Amis's reflection on the expansion of higher education - "more will mean worse" - is not the battle cry of a nation ready to compete on the world stage.

In government, Labour was often accused, with some justification, of having a very mechanistic view of education; all inputs, levers and outputs. The Conservatives profess a more cultured view - FE minister John Hayes never seems to tire of telling us that education is about lighting fires, not filling pails. But in practice the Coalition's austerity regime demands that everything be stripped away unless it meets exactly the kind of targets they claim to despise.

Education secretary Michael Gove has been accused of wanting to recreate the school system of his childhood, though he is hardly the first person to base his education expertise on such long-distant memories. But in some respects, if he were to recreate the experience of his alma mater it would be no bad thing, as private schools place a great deal of emphasis on extra-curricular activities.

As Mr Gove's former school, Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, says: "There is ample opportunity for senior school pupils to participate in numerous extra-curricular activities, expeditions and experiences.

"We have always believed in educating the whole child, in allowing individuals to discover what makes them special and developing that to its best level, nurturing confidence and self-esteem in the process."

It is an admirable manifesto: must we really say we cannot afford this for all teenagers?

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