It's time to put money in the learner's pocket

10th July 2009 at 01:00

With the Skills Funding Agency, Young People's Learning Agency, National Apprenticeship Service, 14-19 partnerships and the setting up of integrated youth support, no wonder the implementation of new arrangements for the transfer of responsibility for 16-19 is known as React.

But is it mainly a story for the producers - the predominantly public sector funders and suppliers? At CfBT, we recognise that the clients in education are often not the actual consumers and we should ensure these consumer needs are met.

New personalised pathways and learning compacts should be good news for learners. But isn't it time that the funds caught up and were placed in learners' pockets?

In education, public sector producers are strong, articulate and have a vice-like in its grip on funding, allocation and delivery mechanisms. And, while there is now more flexibility in employment conditions for staff, public sector terms still dominate, imposing huge financial burdens on the sector, especially through pensions.

Then there are the seemingly endless capital investment programmes for schools and colleges. Buildings, infrastructure and technology have to be supported. Many people are dependent on schools and colleges for jobs. The college construction and refurbishment programme alone amounts to some Pounds 2.3 billion.

The Learning and Skills Council's report "Evaluating the Impact of Capital Expenditure in Further Education" reveals that "for every additional Pounds 1m spent, a college attracts on average an extra 111 learners; a typical Pounds 10m project improves a college's success rate by nearly 1 percentage point as it encourages more learners to complete their qualification". This rise in productivity would not be earth-moving in other business or manufacturing contexts.

Sound research on the effect of new buildings on learning outcomes in schools has proven elusive. We should not be surprised if iconic new buildings cease to be a priority.

So the equation reads thus: machinery of government changes (React) + 14- 19 + raising the participation age + (Building Schools for the Future + Building Colleges for the Future) + sector skills councils - impact of the economic downturn = improved quality, choice and outcomes for learners. This is a creaking equation, ignoring vulnerable learners with special needs or in care or detention, who are at risk of suffering greater disadvantage.

Rather than spend vast sums of taxpayers' money on a complex system of new public sector agencies, would it not be more beneficial to simplify it by giving each student a learning cash entitlement to buy the education and training they need?

The public has to ask where the tax pounds are going. Incentives to save cash do not exist in education because the immediate, but wrong, corollary is that learners would be short-changed. Mention the private sector and the word profit creates the same effect. Ironically, many colleges compete for work and have commercial subsidiaries - about 40 are members of the Confederation of British Industry.

We need the courage to be bold; for government to create the climate in which the learner can be trusted; to redefine the relationships and contract between the student and the funds available for learning; to sacrifice institutional stability for a bit of disruptive innovation; and create a genuine market with tangible consumer benefits.

Tim Emmett, Development director, CfBT Education Trust.

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