Smallness and simplicity are keys to success

9th April 2010 at 01:00
With the election now underway this week's purdah-dodging flurry of reports offered valuable insight into the state of further education and training.

The new Skills Funding Agency and Young People's Learning Agency were born last week and immediately sent into purdah, but not before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee took a swipe at the system (page 31), expressing doubts as to the wisdom of having two bodies looking after FE.

Reading the National Commissioning Framework (page 31) for 16-19 learning, it is easy to understand the committee's concerns. Although the framework is 30 pages shorter than the draft version, it still describes a funding system of seemingly Byzantine complexity.

The number of bodies and organisations involved in the planning, commissioning and funding decisions are enough to make decision by committee look like a model of efficiency. Just when you think you have found the shortest, clearest chain of command and responsibility, a whole new set of sub-process and sub-sub-processes pops up.

Although dedicated to localised, demand-led education with the learner at its heart, the system is trying to deliver this by contorting central planning bodies to fit a pre-determined structure rather than empowering learners, providers, employers and funders to help build it from the bottom up.

Of course, it is always easy to play the populist card and call for more power and responsibility to be handed to one's target audience. But do we really think that the best way to deliver a responsive system of education and training is by foisting two big funding and planning structures on FE?

Two other reports this week also give the FE system cause for concern: the plummeting literacy and numeracy success rates under a Functional Skills programme designed around school pupils (page 29) and the Children, Schools and Families committee report on young people not in employment, education or training (Neet).

Although not an homogeneous group as the select committee says, the fact is that many young people described as Neet also have problems with literacy and numeracy. Many older people, too, struggle to find work and run scared of training because of a lack of basic skills. FE is able to help crack these problems. If there is a silver lining to the economic situation, it is that the need to make efficiencies means that FE's new structures ought to grow smaller and simpler soon.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus


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