FOR all the rhetorical flourishes about "lifelong learning", the Government's policy on post-16 education and training is much the same as that of the Tories. A devastating indictment? Yes. A fair one? Probably.
There can be few things more important to a young person than finding a satisfying and worthwhile career. There are few things more important to the economic success of a developed country than a skilled workforce. Good training policy should deliver satisfying jobs in high-skill industries and the Government will be judged on its ability to deliver these.
The challenge is creating an environment in which business is persuaded to adopt a strategy of developing quality products using a skilled workforce. This may mean doing things that some businesses may resist, such as channelling resources into areas identified for growth, regulating qualifications to develop robust occupational labour markets and raising funds for training through a levy system. There is no evidence that the courage and vision necessary to do these things is currently available.
A successful training policy impacts on economic policy and so cross-departmental issues have to be addressed. The worrying feature of the thrust of Department for Education and Employment policy is timidity and a failure to think radically about the assumptions on which policy rests.
Take the flawed national vocational qualification, which largely ignores the knowledge necessary to do skilled jobs properly. This will remain. It will, however, be supplemented by a theoretical VQ. The problem, however, is not merely one of adding a bit of theory to the practice, but of devising vocational education programmes that integrate theory with practice and ensure that workers apply theory to practice appropriately.
Take the modern apprenticeships, a scheme devised to provide a work-based training route which gives a structured experiential backbone to the NVQ assessment process. The Government is expanding this programme, recognising, rightly, the importance of work-based training for business and the attractiveness of this route for many young people.
Several fundamental problems are, however, left unaddressed: the qualification structure, which accredits the apprenticeship scheme, is being left as it is. The balance between theory, simulation and practice has not been thought through, leaving the danger that theory will be an "add-on" rather than an important and integrated part of the rogramme.
The perverse incentives for employers to recruit young people as soon as they have acquired some operational skill, but before they have acquired the full qualification, have not been tackled. This problem contributes to the low completion rate associated with the scheme. Finally, there is no evidence that modern apprenticeships will be targeted at areas of the economy that the Government particularly wishes to develop.
Take the learning and skills councils that will replace the TECs. These will remain employer-dominated, albeit with more of a "stakeholder" composition, and will identify employers' needs. Thus information blockages in local and regional labour markets will be overcome. Fine, but that leaves open the question as to whether it is in the country's interests to develop employment in the direction of the short-term interests of one group only, the employers. Suppose they are largely interested only in a low-skill workforce? Suppose they up sticks as soon as the newly-qualified labour comes on tap?
One final point about joined-up government. This Government has invested an enormous amount of energy and political capital in raising academic standards in schools. Children have been told that, in order to survive, they will need qualifications. What if they reach the labour market and find that these hard-won educational qualifications are superfluous and that much the same kind of dead-end, low-skill jobs remain on offer? It is not difficult to imagine the disillusion that will ripple through schools once this information gets back.
If you are going to make children work hard at school so that they will get a good job, you had better make sure that there are good jobs, otherwise young people will think they have been conned.
Thinking through the consequences of educational policy means integrating it with employment policy. There is, as yet, little evidence that the Government has done this.
Christopher Winch is professor of philosophy of education at University College, Northampton. His book "New Labour and the Future of Training", published by the
Philosophy of Education Society, is available from the Business and Medical Book Centre, 9 Headlands Business Park Ringwood, Hants. BH24 3BP Tel. 01425 471160, price pound;6.99. A symposium and launch of the pamphlet will be held at 2pm at the Institute of Education, London, on March 14. Please contact Judy Morrison at the institute (j.morrison@ ioe.ac.uk)