FEfocus Editorial - Job success measure just doesn't work

10th December 2010 at 00:00

The more you poke at it, the dumber and more disturbing the idea seems. FE colleges face the prospect of severe financial penalties - not for poor-quality teaching, but if some students do not go straight on to work.

Never mind that it is businesses that decide who to appoint and that it will be employers sitting in the job interviews, not lecturers or principals. Never mind that this scheme will unfairly hack away at the budgets of FE colleges in areas with high unemployment. No, the Skills Funding Agency seems content to shift blame for the jobless to the FE sector (page 1). The scheme will see colleges facing targets to get a set percentage of students who previously claimed benefits into work, and woe betide those institutions that miss them.

The argument for the scheme seems attractive, and you can see why it appealed to the policy wonk who dreamt it up. "What is the point of FE colleges if they don't get their students into work?" The idea may have seemed even more appealing if they had been listening to business leaders, who regularly moan that the education system is not providing the right kinds of preparation for the workplace.

It is true that vocational qualifications should give students the skills they need in their related industries. If they don't, they should be changed. Similarly, FE colleges have a crucial role in guiding students towards courses and careers where they stand the greatest chances of success.

But penalising colleges for factors beyond their control is another matter.

A once reliable local employer can now be closed because of a decision made on the other side of the world. Politicians could not stop the US firm Kraft from taking over Cadbury and reneging on a pledge to keep open its chocolate factory near Bristol. This week, many in the business world were surprised by the revelations that Kraft is to carry out further restructuring of its UK operations and move key parts of them to Switzerland.

Are FE principals now expected to have greater clout and insider sources than the business secretary?

Small firms can be just as unpredictable. Natalie may have done brilliantly on her City amp; Guilds engineering diploma, but if the manager of the local ball-bearings manufacturer secretly does not rate female engineers (especially ginger ones, like Natalie), it is her college that would face the penalty.

A further concern, noted by the Association of Colleges, is that the scheme may encourage colleges to limit courses to "safer" options, the ones with the most obvious job opportunities. As well as reducing the range of subjects taught, this risks narrowing young people's career prospects and is a recipe for killing off entrepreneurship.

The potential for gaming the system is great, too. And if it is hard to collate individualised learner records when it is snowing (page 3), imagine the logistical difficulty of tracking which former students have gone on to work.

Is getting a student a job immediately the best measure of an institution's impact anyway, whether it is a college, school or university? What about those who achieve their dreams after a period of unemployment, such as the novelist John Steinbeck, or even the multi- millionaire singer Susan Boyle? Perhaps colleges should argue for a rebate if they can prove their students achieve success later. Such a remuneration would be impossibly complex to oversee, of course, but no less unfair or ludicrous than the cuts proposed by the Skills Funding Agency.

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