5th May 2000 at 01:00
The new funding body will start with much of its budget already tied - particularly over social exclusion, says Julian Gravatt.

The Learning and Skills Council, the fruit of hours of legislative effort, borrows heavily from the 1992 Further Education Funding Council blueprint, but will be very different. Its predecessor was intelligently constructed, but its designers never gave clear instructions about where it should go. This left its drivers with the freedom to draw their own maps and decide their own route. There were a few general directions from Conservative ministers: more growth, lower costs, no scandal. When the FEFC needed advice, it could either call in a committee of principals or commission research.

Two of its best bits of route-finding were the Tomlinson and Kennedy reports. The latter was especially important: the council took its suggestion of widening participation - further education for people of all ages - with enthusiasm and gained government and college plaudits for doing so.

Where the FEFC drew its own maps, the new council starts with map books already published - prospectuses on the Department of Education's website - that draw heavily on reconnaissance carried out by the Social Exclusion Unit. It also has clearer targets: increased participation by the young; jobs and skills for adults.

Education's new role in social inclusion is more about teenagers than about adults. This goes against the further education grain. You can see social inclusion in the college growth money, linked to raising participation of 16-year-olds. It's in the national learning targets, aiming for 85 per cent of 19-year-olds to achieve NVQ level 2 standard (five high-grade GCSEs) that only 46 per cent of them reach in school.

Social inclusion inspires the various school, qualification and apprenticeship reforms for 14 to 18-year-olds. These are intended to make learning and training more attractive and relevant, thus reducing drop-out rates.

Social inclusion will also drive the new inspection system and cause Ofsted, the schools inspection service - which believes in intervention in inverse proportion to success" - to bear down hard on schools and colleges with low participation and achievement rates. Those targeted may not see this as social inclusion.

Education maintenance allowances - being piloted in a quarter of the country - bring the 16 to 18 social inclusion programme into family budgets. They are paid to students from poorer families with the hope that keeping 16-year-olds in education may help to widen participation in higher education and help more young people reach the NVQ level 2 standard.

Another policy being piloted is the Connexions service. The plan is for careers officers, youth workers and other advisers to meld into a single cohesive personal advice service for young people, with the aim of keeping teenagers in education, training or work. There will be five Connexions piloted in 2001. The Learning and Skills Bill gives the Government general powers to develop the service in the future.

The youth support service caused the Government's only defeat in the Lords over the post-16 part of the Bill. The Lords made an amendment to ensure that more help for vulnerable teenagers would not be paid for at the expense of a general entitlement to careers advice for all 13 to 18-year-olds. This amendment is likely to be overturned, but it has exposed a pitfall of the 16 to 18 social inclusion programme.

Targeting money on disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-olds will generate significant opposition to reforms if it threatens middle-class entitlements. Careers advice is one of a set of obstacles that includes school sixth forms, child benefit and A-levels. The FEFC avoided most of these hazards because its target was more flexible. The LSC will start with 70 per cent of its budget committed to 16 to 18-year-olds, a directive to target its resources on the disadvantaged and a pressing need for a route which gets it to its destination without major accidents. Finding a skilled driver for the LSC will be only part of the answer.

Julian Gravatt is registrar of Lewisham College, south London

email: jgr@staff.lewisham.ac.uk

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