FEfocus Editorial - Five thousand problems with new legislation

25th March 2011 at 00:00

A "fine of up to pound;5,000" is the standard punishment for a surprisingly wide range of misdemeanours. Leave a wheelie bin out too long, or have a loud party after being warned by the council - that's a fine of up to pound;5,000. Bid on your own item on eBay; sell alcohol to underage youths; fail to pay minimum wage - again, the same fine. You'll also face it for killing a swan or constructing a compost heap without a licence.

The Education Bill will add a new misdemeanour to this list: newspapers will soon face that fine if they reveal the identity of teachers facing allegations before criminal charges are brought. This little bit of legislation is the entirety of the Government's promised crack-down on students who make malicious accusations, the ones who mutter: "I'll tell them you hit me."

The fine's effectiveness is open to debate. Teacher unions believe it will be too small to deter newspapers, and some national dailies may indeed shrug it off (though a local paper would be loath to waste an amount that is half some reporters' salaries).

Whether the punishment is strong enough or not, a deeper flaw exists in the legislation: it only covers teachers in schools. Yet again, the entire FE sector has been ignored.

Department for Education officials made promising noises this week, saying they would be looking at expanding the right to anonymity to cover college lecturers as well. But why did they not notice before?

Graham Stuart, chairman of the Commons education select committee, deserves credit for bringing the ommission to their attention through his amendment to the bill, and for rightly highlighting "the artificial divide between schools and colleges". It is preposterous that two teachers in the same town, teaching the same age group the same qualification, could face the same accusation, and that the FE lecturer could then have his face on the front page of the evening paper while the school teacher was protected.

The hole in the legislation is symptomatic of the way FE colleges continue to be overlooked. In the debate about widening access, shock statistics are often cited for the numbers who get three A grades at A-level, comparing the numbers from one successful private school with all those young people apparently eligible for free school meals. Yet such calculations frequently fail to include the figures from FE colleges, which the vast majority of the less advantaged group attend.

Coverage of Professor Alison Wolf's report on vocational education this month also provided examples of Britain's blind-spot over FE. She recommended that pupils should be able to be accepted to colleges from 14, rather than officially based in a school while doing an FE course. Yet this was reported in some quarters as if there were no under-16s in FE already, which will have bemused lecturers who work with some of the 74,000 14 and 15-year-olds now doing courses in their colleges.

To call FE the Cinderella sector is not only a cliche, but it sometimes feels too upbeat; after all, Cinders eventually made it to the ball. So how to address this national blind-spot? Perhaps a system of sanctions for politicians and policy-makers who overlook FE when addressing issues that affect colleges as well as schools. A fine of up to pound;5,000 would do nicely.

Joseph Lee is away.

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