Ministers should trust the customer to make the right choices when reforming post-16 education and training, an inquiry by top-level educationists, industrialists and political advisers has concluded.
They warn ministers to resist the temptation to take central control through the Learning and Skills Council. Powers should be with the 47 local arms to issue sound information, advice and guidance, the inquiry report says.
There is deep scepticism about the command and control planning that underlies much of the learning and skills White Paper and Bill, now before Parliament.
The inquiry, which took the form of papers presented to a series of seminars, was organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (set up by Labour in opposition) and the Further Education Development Agency. Participants included senior figures from both sides of industry, the Employment Policy Institute, education organisations, the careers service, local government, and youth and community groups.
Evidence suggests that efforts to plan te education and training market have little effect on individual choice. The report, The New Learning Market, shows overwhelming agreement that "informed customer choice is a sound basis for a learning market to operate". A command and control approach would not give an efficient system, it concludes. It calls for better careers advice and support systems to influence customers rather than coerce them. It recommends making "customer feedback and satisfaction" major drivers of the new system.
One of the biggest concerns was that the Learning and Skills Council would be used to centralise control: measures should be taken to prevent this. A clash of interests was identified, because the council would be responsible for both issuing guidance and hitting government targets. "This could prejudiced the impartiality of advice," the report warns.
The annual planning and funding round should be dropped in favour of a constant dialogue between customers and providers to address needs, it concludes.
Analysis, pages 38-39