Forget the cure-alls and go for radical change
Our twin challenges are real: to get the best performance from all students - both teenagers and adults - and to make the most of necessarily limited resources. Fortunately however, recent events at home have opened the way to an answer, although in order to reach it nettles will have to be grasped by whatever party is in power after the general election.
First, we need to forget unlikely cure-alls such as vouchers to the right or learning accounts to the left, both of which threaten to be long on bureaucracy and short on concrete results. Both these routes will create institutional uncertainty when the educational process needs a measure of stability to succeed. What they do recognise, however, is that the only way to improve performance dramatically is to take a radical look at the funding of all education and training post-16.
Helpful current developments include national education and training mergers, the beginnings of regionalisation and a recent willingness to look at the actual costs of different forms of delivery. We now have a Department for Education and Employment, some boards embracing both general and vocational examinations and a cautious approach to an over-arching national curriculum and assessment body. The relatively new government regional offices can provide the springboard for many useful developments, with or without elected assemblies.
As to funding itself, the Further Education Funding Council has begun to demonstrate successful application of a formula across two previously separate sectors and the statistical froth surrounding the recent Competitiveness White Paper includes interesting comparative information. The inability of government or independent researchers to agree on relative costs of delivering three A-levels, for instance, is also the clearest demonstration of the necessity of a new approach.
We need to create a Post-Compulsory Funding Council which will support all institutions currently within the FEFC's remit, all sixth-form work in publicly funded schools, the adult education at present funded by LEAs and the training programmes administered through TECs.
The new body's funding formula will derive from the fundamental review of the FEFC's methodology about to take place.
It will also answer Bill Stubbs' parting prayer by including the funding of student support. The achievement element will, as now, be based on individual student targets and there will continue to be discrete funding for necessary learning support. To obtain effective distribution of a larger sum there will be regional oversight with teeth, including a measure of strategic planning at that level to ensure as sensitive a response to need as possible.
A final key element will be a quality assessment arm with a remit across the whole expanded sector. Funding, planning and the monitoring of quality will each contribute to a unified approach to participation and achievement and, to parody a saying from a previous educational era, we shall have a national formula regionally administered.
Doubts will be expressed of course, not least by LEAs, schools and TECs. So far as LEAs are concerned the disparity of their support for post-16 students and the relatively low priority they previously gave much of this provision weakens their case for further involvement.
Schools will worry about dealing with two funding bodies but fortunately many will already have had some years' practice with the FEFC for their adult work. TECs may be sorry to lose their involvement with training programmes, but it will enable them to be re-developed as the genuine local enterprise bodies they have always claimed to be.
On the positive side, we will gain a proper sense of strategic purpose across the whole sector, hopefully avoiding both the chaos of Kent and the accidental undermining of other government policies, on sport, for instance. Parity of funding will give the biggest possible boost to increasing parity of esteem.
To achieve national targets we need to value courses with different aims and methods equally. This becomes much easier if all institutions are seen to be funded on the same basis.
A Post-Compulsory Funding Council will also end the artificial distinction created by Schedule 2, enabling all adult education to perform one of its proper roles of seducing students into further study. Achievement of such prizes will be worth the pain but it will certainly require a government to show some guts.
Noel Kershaw is honorary research fellow at Exeter University