Getting to grips with exclusion
The fact Sir Michael drew to public attention in his recent speech in York is that the Learning and Skills Council's current approach to what it funds is diminishing opportunities for young people to learn if they do not fit into school, college or apprenticeships.
This is an issue of great social and economic significance, not least because it is increasingly evident that the funding priorities of the education and training body, which receives pound;8.5bn of public money, do not include a commitment to making provision remotely adequate for young people most at risk of long-term exclusion.
The UK is widely understood to have a problem with participation post-16.
The Social Exclusion Unit's most recent report on the issue of transition at 16-plus identified 1.1 million people aged 16-24 as being NEET (not in education, employment or training). Of these, 200,000 are aged 16-17.
This is greater than the number of young people who are pursuing college courses up to level 2 (five GCSE's or equivalent) and greater than the 174,000 individuals whom the LSC counted towards its public service agreement target for apprenticeship starts in 2004-5.
The reality is that if you are young today and able to take advantage of a school or college course post-16, you have an entitlement guarantee to 118 weeks (i.e. three college academic years) of fully funded full-time education.
If, however, you are one of the many youngsters for whom school or college life is not appropriate post-16, you now have only two options: an entitlement to 22 weeks of funded learning via the Entry to Employment programme or an apprenticeship. The completion of a full framework apprenticeship also requires minimally the achievement of attainment (funded over 40 weeks) that is equivalent to level 2.
It is worth bearing in mind that full framework apprenticeships require, in addition to the successful completion of a level 2 NVQ, a technical certificate and at least two key skills, as well as the ability to find and hold down a job.
Of the young people that come to Rathbone each year, 94 per cent have not achieved a single qualification during their school years. A similar percentage are assessed by the Connexions service as having both an additional learning and social support need.
Of these, 80 per cent join Rathbone programmes with a basic skills assessment at entry level. This is two basic skills levels below that reasonably required to have a half-decent chance of achieving a full framework apprenticeship.
It is unrealistic to expect such people to overcome 11 years of low attainment in school and be level 2 ready within 22 weeks of starting an Entry to Employment programme.
The essential point is that no one at either QCA or LSC has thought through the curriculum and entitlement needs of the significant number of youngsters who fall outside the reach of the college and school sectors before incorporating the objective of all such learning into the PSA target for apprenticeship achievement.
Also, the LSC has from the outset failed to administer its various sub-sectors in an even-handed way. As a result there are fundamental and system-wide inequalities of access and opportunity that a unified post-16 sector was supposed to eliminate. The exacerbation of these inequalities by the LSC's current funding priorities is what is causing alarm at Rathbone as well as other organisations committed to working with the most disadvantaged.
If it is OK to do an entry or foundation level course at a college, why is it not OK to follow such a course with an independent provider in a context that is more appropriate to your needs?
If it is OK to do a free-standing NVQ qualification at college, without being at work and without the compulsion to take an allied technical certificate or key skill qualification at the same time, why is this facility not available to young people for whom a sustained commitment to learning is in itself a huge achievement?
If it is OK for the LSC to count such learners towards the PSA targets for apprenticeships by re-labelling them as a "programme-led pathway" to apprenticeship, why stop funding these opportunities outside the college sector?
If you can stay on at school or college for two years, making modest improvements to your prior academic attainment and not be coerced into following a level 2 qualification after only 22 weeks of study, why is such an option not open to those outside the college sector with the greatest learning and social support needs?
In short, why is it that six years after the formation of the LSC there is still no sign of fully integrated and equitably funded foundation tiers of learning that is relevant to the needs of young people across the ability range?
These are the questions underlying Sir Michael's speech in York, and he is right to ask them. He is entitled also to receive a more considered response from the LSC than the spin that was offered to FE Focus.
Richard Williams is chief executive of Rathbone