Plain talk needed on The Sector

5th September 2008 at 01:00

Those of us who watch the world of further education closely are familiar with it being referred to as "the sector". It has something of a science fiction feel, probably because it dresses up a nebulous term in spuriously technical language. The Arkanis sector. The Gamma Quadrant. Area 51. The FE sector.

And like Area 51, no one really knows what is in it. Certainly, it comprises colleges and other training providers. But, beyond that, it is a matter for debate: given that FE has a claim to influencing more parts of society than any other part of the education system, it is difficult to draw the boundary.

This is why the Government can justifiably claim "broad support" for its plans to transfer about Pounds 7 billion of funding for 16- to 18-year-olds to local authorities, and why that claim is misleading.

It is certainly true that they have the support of many local authorities, which argue that making them responsible for funding 16- to 18-year-olds will give them real leadership over the education of teenagers in their locality, not to mention increasing the revenue under their control.

But this broad support is bolstered by endorsements from organisations ranging from small charities supporting disabled children to the Commission for Rural Communities - which is, in any case, a government body and so might be thought to have a presumption in a favour of government policies.

It is not that these organisations should not contribute to the debate, but it is questionable as to whether they should be considered part of "the sector", a phrase likely to give the impression that colleges support this change when they do not.

Now we are told that despite their stated opposition to the plans, colleges were overall supportive of the principles behind them. If you defined the principles broadly enough then, yes, you probably could get England's 363 colleges to agree.

But it brings into question the purpose of the consultation. While it is not an invite to sit at the cabinet table and start dictating policy, it is presumably not meant to be a retrospective justification for the exercise of power either. If it is to be a genuine exchange of views, the Government should be upfront about who disagrees, how strongly and why it believes they are wrong.

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