FEfocus Editorial - Beware the rhetoric of false prophets

4th February 2011 at 00:00
Joseph Lee

With the Egyptian people on the streets, trying to overturn 30 years of autocratic rule with dignity and courage, the rhetoric of "freedom" in UK public policy rings more hollow than usual.

It is hollow partly because the Conservative party's equation of absence of bureaucratic procedures with real political freedom was always a bit fatuous. Without wanting to understate the drudgery of FE's culture of form filling, it remains infinitely preferable to being tortured in jail.

But the rhetoric also fails to convince because the new regime in FE acts less like revolutionaries on the street demanding change now and more like the established powers, making promises that real reforms are just around the corner as a concession to buy more time.

In one of his first speeches as FE minister, John Hayes said: "As soon as I was appointed minister, I immediately set about the task of setting colleges free." Go down Moses, tell old Pharoah, let my people go!

Yet sometimes it appears as if the prophet took his people through the wilderness before doubling back and ending up in Egypt instead of the Promised Land. So it is with the decision to specify apprenticeship standards, requiring 280 guided learning hours, of which nearly a third should be "off the job" (page 1). Not only is this a funny kind of freedom, but the Government's favourite skills programme, celebrated for its practicality and relevance to work, risks having classroom time imposed upon it.

Those of us who hang on to every word of Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, a man who really does appear to want to overturn the established order of FE, might have thought that this kind of micro-specification was a thing of the past.

He told the Association of Learning Providers, which might have felt entitled to assume his words applied to apprenticeships, that: "The emphasis will not be on inputs like guided learning hours; or even outputs like qualifications, but on outcomes such as progress towards - or achievement of - sustainable employment; an apprenticeship; improved employee performance; acceptance to higher education; or starting a business. So `demand-led' will not just be a sound bite anymore, it will be a reality."

Perhaps we are just not ready for this kind of freedom yet; perhaps, like Moses, we are all destined to see the Promised Land laid out before us in keynote speeches and policy documents, but to die before we may enter it.

There is an argument in defence of this kind of specification, of course. It is encouraging to see companies such as Procter amp; Gamble take up apprenticeships as an alternative to graduate recruitment (page 3), but we cannot allow companies with billion-pound profits to take public subsidies for their training without ensuring it is spent in the public interest. Conservatives were hugely critical of the way that Train to Gain merely displaced private investment in training; there is a danger that the growth in apprenticeships might achieve the same effect.

All the same, the sign of a healthy political system is that its rhetoric does, to some extent, match reality. This Government cannot continue for too long promising freedom and localism on the one hand while continuing to tighten its central control.

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