See people, not pound signs

16th November 2007 at 00:00

Dennis Hayes (see story on page 1) may be regarded by many as a controversial character, but if what he says - that there is absolutely no connection between skills training and the state of the economy - is dangerous, it is much less so than following the consensus view in pursuit of a quiet life.

Government policy for post-16 education is based on a misleading truism: the more people can do - whether it is reading a bus timetable or servicing a piece of machinery - the better it is for the economy in general and their own prospects in particular.

From this statement, we are expected to accept, by extension, an increasingly absolutist set of policies, which seek to measure the value of FE according to the connection that can be made between course content and relevance to employers.

This is the so-called demand-led approach, which has all too little to do with the demands of colleges' real customers - the students.

Of course, employers must be listened to. But the social well-being of our adult population, not to mention its mental health, can be greatly enhanced by studying non-vocational subjects.

This in turn increases people's employability, reduces their dependency on the state and in many cases helps with some of the softer skills - for example, communication and working in groups - that business leaders often say are lacking in vocational courses.

The connections between education and employability are wonderfully subtle and better understood by college principals than by Whitehall mandarins.

The people who work in our colleges are among the most entrepreneurial and outward-looking of any in the public sector. But colleges will always believe, rightly, that their students are more than simply the raw material from which profit can be extracted by employers at a later stage.

The Learning and Skills Council, according to its mission statement, "exists to make England better skilled and more competitive". Colleges have wider aspirations than this - and so should policymakers.

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