Retread for drop-outs

13th December 1996 at 00:00
Government White Papers used to be bold new initiatives signalling major legislation for the coming parliamentary session. Training for Jobs in 1983 launched the Thatcherite youth training revolution and an era in which industry was put firmly in the driving seat, leaving governments to advise, not dictate.

No such claims can be made for the latest White Paper on provision for 14 to 19-year-olds in the same series, Learning to Compete. Certainly, it states bold intentions: a "relaunch strategy" for drop-outs, learning credits for 16 to 21-year-olds, improved careers advice and a new "entry-level" qualification to help low achievers into work.

But these initiatives are either already in place or tired and wan, retreads of a tyre which has been run repeatedly over the same ground. It is a pre-election document to put the best possible gloss on what has been done, or left undone, over the past three years. Why should anyone now believe ministers who insist they are casting a lifeline to prevent young drop-outs becoming unemployable?

Ministers and their supreme adviser, Sir Ron Dearing, must be given credit for the new general national vocational qualification part I and moves to make the 14-plus curriculum more relevant to the workplace for this group. However, this is the old Link initiative by another name. It provided successful school-college-industry programmes for under-achievers. But they were driven out by the national curriculum and by funding changes which made collaboration more difficult.

The White Paper also offers national traineeships or "junior apprenticeships" which ministers pledge will provide what Youth Training failed to - employer-led courses leading to high-quality vocational qualifications. This is another worthwhile Dearing initiative. But a glance through more than a decade of past promises shows that YT was going to do this where the Youth Training Scheme had failed. Likewise, YTS had promised "high-quality training", replacing the inadequate Youth Opportunities Programme. And already the traineeships are talked of as second-class modern apprenticeships.

When it comes to funding, ministers had promised fair competition. Schools would have to cut their cloth in line with college spending. Efficiencies driven into the college system had not been attempted in schools, which could subsidise sixth-forms with lower-school cash.

But that factor appears nowhere in the Department for Education and Employment's calculations. Frightened off by the sway the schools lobby might hold over the election, ministers have copped out. Tinkering on the margins, they are imposing payment-by-results schemes, which means that schools will find, as colleges do now, that part of the cash they get will depend on sixth-form exam successes.

A further paper on funding differences will be published soon. But, in the words of one of the Government's most senior advisers: "There is no presumption that there will be pressure to cut school funding". Ministers cited DFEE evidence to show the differences were insignificant. But even on their own figures, there is a variation of 5 per cent.

But the choice between pumping more money into FE or cutting sixth-form funding is not one ministers are willing to make. Nor will they contemplate any curb on small sixth forms which cannot by any calculation provide a full and economic range of choice for their students.

What can be said for the White Paper is that it is the first comprehensive review of provision for 14 to 19-year-olds since the merger of the two government departments for education and employment, and reflects the integration which has made possible a joint package of education and training for the whole age group. Coherence will take a little longer.

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