The Government tells it like it isn't

16th June 2006 at 01:00
The headline "FE's future looks bright and sunny" (FE Focus, June 9) grabbed one's attention if only for its perversity.

Was this merely the result of the overactive imagination of a sub-editor? No, it was a message from Planet Spin, which lies somewhere south of Uranus.

The message comes from a purveyor of occasional good news, further education minister Bill Rammell. You remember him. He emerges to say what wonders the Government has planned. His opinion that everyone welcomes government reforms may be something he believes. For, in his world, where people tell him what he wants to hear, it is difficult to recognise the truth.

But it is never advisable to believe missives from Planet Spin. There is too much belief in the maxim "if we say it often enough for long enough, it will be true". For some it is a way of life but it applies particularly to those who have been in office for some time with little meaningful challenge.

Of course, on Planet Spin they interpret the comments of others selectively. For instance, organisations habitually respond to Government proposals by saying the policy is welcomed - before specifying the 47 instances where the draft needs to be revised. The Government promptly takes this as an indication that "reaction to the white paper has been really positive".

But have you seen commentators clamouring to say the slicing of bread is but a minor miracle in comparison with this wonderful initiative? I doubt it. When Mr Rammell talks of stakeholders influencing "the shaping of policy and practice", it is possible to get excited. Remember though that this is Planet Spin. There is little intention that educators will make much difference to the rough-hewn plans the Government intends to implement. This is implicit when Mr Rammell mentions a meeting of "the major agencies concerned with FE". You might think this means a group of experts with detailed knowledge of the educational process in the post-compulsory sector. Wrong. On Planet Spin, these agencies are employers, learners and, almost as an afterthought, providers.

One reason the white paper was given a cautious welcome is that it avoids the dull monotone of the skills, skills, skills focus of the Foster Report.

But the difference is not great. Indeed, the variations may be largely a matter of presentation. And remember how important presentation is on Planet Spin. How else could universal condemnation of planned policies be met with the optimistic response of "We need to get our presentation right"?

No, you need to get the policy right. That means listening to relevant voices. It is far from clear that the views of the practitioners, managers and researchers of FE will be heard. Indeed, conclusions for change look to have been reached: Foster talked of revisions being made within two years and Mr Rammell mentions work that needs to be completed in the next 18 months. And what is this "work" that is expected to shape the policy and practice of those working in FE? A cogently worked through philosophy? No, not even close. The culture on fees needs to be changed to fit in with the new demand-led vision. Yet, demand includes adults who want to develop themselves and their skills or simply to enjoy enhanced leisure options. On Planet Spin such inconveniences will be summarised as the wrong kind of demand, just as trains can be viewed as not dealing well with the wrong kind of snow.

The white paper was called Further education: raising skills, improving life chances, but while Mr Rammell's column places a good deal of emphasis on skills there is little mention of life chances.

Could this be the ultimate legacy Planet Spin presents to FE:a softer focus on skills than Foster outlines, but themes of personal development mentioned in the white paper get lost in reality?

Graham Fowler is a writer, researcher and consultant in further education

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