Never mind the speed, let's have the quality

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Moving a quarter of a million 18 to 25-year-olds off benefits and into work is a commendable objective of the new Government.

The Prime Minister has been wise enough to say there are no quick fixes, however, we agree, not least because there is a frightening lack of clarity on the policy objectives behind Welfare to Work. Is it a cynical attempt to influence the unemployment figures or is it about improving the skills of the young unemployed within a framework of lifetime learning?

We must presume the latter objective, if the "new deal" is to be equated with the high moral principles of new Labour. But if it is the latter then we need to reflect on the content and shape of both the school curriculum and current government programmes for the unemployed.

The stark reality is that the previous administration worked in antithesis to an all inclusive education and training framework.

A national (and political) obsession with crude league tables, target frenzy, a "market" approach which sought only to drive down price (and not drive up quality), has resulted in the rates of exclusion, disaffection and marginalisation we now preside over in our schools and training establishments.

In a nutshell, the framework encouraged those who could deliver results and meet the education and training targets in the fastest possible time and for the lowest possible price.

It has worked against many pupils with statements, which they have because of identified learning difficulties, and has not helped young trainees said to have "special training needs".

Worse still has been the dreadful way in which the system has been economical with the truth. The voluntary sector has often been at the receiving end of criticism by training and enterprise councils that the quality of and is delivered and is poor.

A closer truth is that our traditional cohort takes longer to achieve a given "output" than funding allows.

Many of us will recall our first taste of employment. It was a daunting experience. Imagine how much worse it must be for those who lack qualifications, have no working role models at home, who face chronic problems of self-image and have been rejected so often that they have rejected the system before it rejects them.

It was pleasing to hear the minister, Andrew Smith, at a recent conference placing quality at the heart of Welfare to Work. An active labour market strategy will need to recognise the profound correlation between low educational attainment at school and subsequent unemployment.

Acknowledging this leads to the rather obvious conclusion that the Welfare to Work strategy should be for the 14 to 25 age group. Earlier links to vocational training and the workplace are a priority for those who are not suited to the academic curriculum at that stage in their lives.

Two other things must happen. There must be a contractual obligation on employers for training to be given in return for the subsidy and it should be called a learning or training rather than an employment subsidy.

There must be a review of how current provision, from colleges through to traineeships and Modern Apprenticeships might embrace the Welfare to Work cohort.

The league-table performance indicators for training and enterprise councils will need to be reviewed, with a primary focus put on links to the workplace.

There must be flexibility to move within and between the options; some will need longer than six months, while others will benefit from a variation in content.

The employer option must not be discounted for those with special educational or training needs, if stigma and marginalisation are to be avoided. The strategy must include the role to be played by Investors in People and the University for Industry, overarched by the concept of lifetime learning.

Welfare to Work has brought about a late but welcome conversion in the national psyche. Concerns about the disaffected and excluded are coming from every quarter, even from those who previously lived under the illusion (or self-delusion) that everything in the garden was rosy.

There are no easy solutions and ministers should beware those who claim there are. Government too must continue its moral crusade for integrity in all it does. This requires being honest about the level of dead weight it is prepared to accept. Quality must come before speed. TECs must accept that partnership has been a euphemism for many working in the sector, particularly those who held true to their obligation for training the most disadvantaged, advocated on their behalf and accepted being pilloried for it. As Chris Humphries from the TEC Council said at a recent conference, the turf war between voluntary organisations and TECs must stop.

You are right Chris; but we're tired, so will you take the lead on this one and give credit for all the sector has achieved when all the odds were stacked against us?

Anne Weinstock, chief executive of Rathbone CI

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