It's easy to blame FE for the skills gap
What is the problem that Learning to Succeed and the subsequent legislation is trying to address? This question has been puzzling observers since the White Paper's publication last year.
The confusion arises from the apparent contrast in government thinking between the clear desire to create a learning market driven by the needs of the learner, at the same time as having that market overlaid by an apparently sophisticated planning apparatus in the form of the national Learning and Skills Council and its 47 local arms.
Ostensibly, the reforms appear to be a response to a number of criticisms of the post-16 learning system. First, there is wide agreement over the confusion and the inequity caused by having different funding routes for full-time education and part-time training.
Second, it is argued that providers have been insufficiently responsive to the needs of learners. The language of the "learning market" is meant to signal that, with funding following the learner, providers will be obliged to be more responsive.
Third, a number of specific examples of provider failure in FE have raised concerns. If this was all there was to the White Paper it would be hard to see why it is so controversial. It would also be hard to see why there was such an emphasis on planning, which would not really be necessary in the form envisaged if the objectives were simply to provide a system of equitable funding and to make providers more responsive.
However, there is another justification lurking behind Learning to Succeed, which officials at the Department for Education and Employment hav confirmed is in practice overwhelmingly more important than those explored above. The UK economy is held to be in a "low skills equilibrium" whereby a skills gap separates our workforce from those of comparable industrial countries, with this gap in turn the cause of inadequate economic performance.
What is being asserted here is not that the learning market suffers from market failures justifying carefully targeted interventions to overcome those failures. Rather, it is alleged that the education and training system suffers from "systemic failures" leading to an under-skilled workforce.
Researchers tell the Government that we have a skills gap and employers' organisations constantly reinforce the message. Ergo, further education must be failing to deliver.
The supply side of the learning market must be given a good shake-up, which is the agenda for this White Paper. In addition, demand for learning must be stimulated, which is the agenda primarily for future reforms. Essentially further education is being blamed for the perceived problems of the British economy.
So, we have a learning market to make providers more responsive to learners and to create equity between learning routes, and we have planning to overcome the low skills equilibrium. The apparent contradiction in Learning to Succeed is thus easily explained.
Unfortunately for those working in FE, it is easier to engage in a debate over provider responsiveness than it is to have to respond to the implied accusation that the sector is to blame for the country's perceived economic problems.
Peter Robinson is senioreconomist at the Institutefor Public Policy and Research.