FE production line must have a higher purpose

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Alastair Thomson

The third skills strategy - Skills for Growth - together with a separate analytical paper and a Skills Investment Strategy 201011, represent some of the final documents on post-school education and training policy before the general election.

The recession of the past year means there is a need to re-focus how education and skills can help the country's recovery, positioning the UK to remain stable and prosperous in a changed world economy.

Reaction has been muted. Skills for Growth contains much that will contribute to economic recovery - further strengthening of apprenticeships, a promise of greater choice for learners through Skills Accounts and a system of "traffic light" information about courses.

The focus on higher level and technical skills addresses a weakness in the UK compared with other economies such as Germany and the US, and seeks to position Britain as a leader in emerging industrial sectors such as low- carbon technologies and bio-sciences.

However, there are three interlinking concerns. First is whether the Skills for Growth white paper is akin to deck chair re-arrangement as the ship goes down; second, there are deep worries about funding beyond 2011; and third, there is a frustration that the Government does not recognise the contribution made by education to a good society.

Skills for Growth fails to address the UK's demographic challenges. Concern for younger people is understandable, having been hardest hit in the recession, but the paper risks confusing short-term fixes with strategy. It offers no measures to address the challenges of an ageing population. Once the recession ends the UK will need older workers to keep training and learning for extended working lives.

The Skills Investment Strategy 201011 is depressing, but it is not as bad as recently leaked proposals including a freeze on further education staff salaries, a 10 per cent cut in the "safeguarded" adult learning budget, and cuts to the planned Adult Advancement and Careers Service.

Such drastic reductions appear to be off the cards - for now - but there will be harsh budget cuts no matter which party wins the election. While total spending on FE continues to rise, public investment concentrates on fewer adults as overall learner numbers in FE are set to decline from 3.51 million in 200910 to 3.43 million in 201011.

The pound;210 million Adult Safeguarded Learning budget remains but its value continues to erode as a result of inflation. The budget for personal and community development learning and family literacy, language and numeracy will be stretched further to include an online basics offer, following Estelle Morris's review of ICT-user skills. And the Skills for Life budget is set to fall from pound;541.3 million in 200910 to pound;514.8 million in 201011.

Another big concern is with the way in which the word "education" is being supplanted by the word "skills". Teachers and trainers are not simply servants of the labour market, they are educators.

FE is more than a production line to feed the labour market with skilled hands. It has always had a broader role to develop informed and active citizens. As it is overwhelmingly a local service, it contributes to stronger, more cohesive communities and it is depressing that this vision is missing from the skills strategy.

Alastair Thomson, Principal advocacy officer, NIACE.

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