Performance gauge must be finely tuned

15th May 2009 at 01:00

No one, not even MPs, gets something for nothing these days. And so it looks for learning providers if Geoff Russell, the new chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, has his way.

Not that learning providers do nothing with the billions they receive every year - far from it. But the focus is now firmly on ensuring the best possible use of public funds for education and training, and this looks likely to mean taking money from weaker providers and giving it to those that show strong performance.

Mr Russell talks in the same breath of value for money, which has unfortunate connotations, not least of bargain basement further education and training. Of course, to frighten further education, this particular basement would have to be lower than the already low levels of funding at which the sector manages to deliver consistently good results.

Value for money is surely a good thing. It rewards providers whose efforts are reaping education rewards, and presumably acts as a stimulus for those who could up their game. Ultimately, rewarding and encouraging the best provision should improve the quality of education overall for learners, which is what it's all about.

But, as so often, the devil will be in the detail. Just how the LSC plans to measure the performance of colleges and providers remains to be seen. But, as Mr Russell acknowledges, whatever the metrics chosen, care has to be taken in their application.

College performance, in terms of completion rates and qualifications achieved, will vary significantly depending on the mix of students. A college with large numbers of students from deprived areas with little previous education can expect more of their students to drop out, often for financial and personal reasons.

Mr Russell is alive to that and recognises the need to measure how much value a college is adding.

But will the metrics be sufficiently flexible and sensitive to cover the wide range of qualifications and programmes delivered by further education providers - everything from higher education to basic skills and work- based training, including the modular nature of much of its provision?

And, given that school and college performance are measured in different ways, there may be a risk that a college is penalised financially for poor performance against LSC metrics, only to find that it still outperforms the local school for the same provision.

Care will have to be taken, as Mr Russell says. But having a more robust system for rewarding and enhancing quality - beyond the base standards applied currently by the council - is surely vital for a sector seeking greater autonomy.

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