FE Focus Editorial - The good, the bad and the disparity

26th November 2010 at 00:00

It is a good week and a bad week for egalitarianism. Good for the young, who will see fairer rates of funding at 16-19, whether they choose to attend college or school. But bad for adults who need to learn basic skills, who will see a badly thought-out levelling down, which will in the long run only increase inequality.

Of course, the equality for teenagers is also being achieved by reducing "to the level of the most efficient", as Whitehall puts it. There is an entertaining irony in a Tory-dominated Government finally achieving equal sixth-form funding by levelling down, after years of treating this as a grave crime by the left-wing enemies of success. But it is best to rejoice when a sinner repents.

Equal funding is, after all, a better use of rationed resources, and has the potential to benefit efficient colleges by offering them a greater share of student numbers.

The introduction of the ability to close down sixth-forms with poor inspection results is also welcome: it finally adds a reverse gear to the school sixth-form expansion, which previously had the lever stuck on "full steam ahead". Next year's publication of school success-rate data, which judging by preliminary results reveals some strikingly poor-performing schools, is likely to accelerate the impetus for change.

But it is not so good for Esol, literacy and numeracy. Removing the weighting intended to acknowledge the extra investment required to teach students without basic skills must have seemed like an easy cut to make, just another levelling down. But it has been selectively applied without much justification: weighting should reflect the relative costs of all courses, and so it needed to be reviewed comprehensively.

There are good reasons to think Esol and basic skills are more expensive. It is expensive to provide the individual support to cope with learners at very different levels, and in Esol's case, with multiple languages. Many colleges doubled up teachers to cope: that will be put at risk.

What is perhaps even harder to justify is the disparity between Esol and literacy classes. At heart, these are the same thing: teaching the effective use of this country's language to people who need more support. Yet we are content to offer drastically less help to some people, simply because of where they were born.

We do not apply such a divide in other areas of British life. New residents of the UK are not put into some inferior, poorly funded version of the NHS: all residents get access to the same service from day one.

The penny-pinching approach to Esol misses the broader point that it is not merely a handout to foreigners, even if they leave this country shortly afterwards. It is in our national interests to have a global population with English as the common language, especially given our dismal efforts at learning the languages of others.

The millions spent on teaching migrants are well spent for businesses abroad, which rely on the general availability of English speakers. What would a country like France give to have foreigners queueing up to learn its language? And would they not be prepared to pay for it?

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