Starter's orders: a wish list for the new Government's consideration

7th May 2010 at 01:00
As the UK considers the changed political landscape and its far- reaching implications, FE Focus offers key people from across further education the opportunity to help shape a new agenda for education and skills

`Time to streamline accountabilities'

Pat Bacon, Principal, St Helen's College, and president, Association of Colleges

What further education really needs from the new government is the desire to work with us as a strategic partner in order to effectively meet the needs of individuals, the communities we serve and the economy.

Instead of creating an expensive and complex bureaucracy to micro-manage what we deliver, a streamlining of the accountabilities within a national framework would allow us to deliver improved value for money while responding to need. In this new mature partnership colleges would work with the Government to deliver key targets, pilot new initiatives and inform strategy.

The Association of Colleges manifesto set out more specific actions that we would wish to be on the agenda, including more direct funding of higher education delivered by FE colleges rather than via a university, a clear role for colleges in delivering the 14-19 curriculum, and a flexible budgeting process that allows colleges to meet actual, rather than perceived, needs.

`Free up creativity within the system'

John Stone, Chief executive, Learning and Skills Network

What further education really needs from the new government are policy initiatives that contribute to the flexibility, agility and responsiveness of the skills system.

In a time of rapid economic change there is an increasing need to support new industries with new skills. The challenge of youth unemployment must also be met. All this comes at a time when additional resources are certain to be in short supply.

The traditional reaction from governments in such circumstances has been to second guess future skills requirements and attempt to give these areas funding priority.

To do so would be to ignore the central conclusion of the Leitch report and, indeed, the lessons of history: that attempts to predict skills requirements to any meaningful degree are doomed to failure. Moreover, diverting resources into rigidly prescribed silos, each with their own bureaucratic overhead, can only lead to an inefficient use of scarce public funds.

We are entering an age of uncertainty. The future shape and scale of our economy is unknown and unknowable, making it impossible to predict the skills needs our new economy will demand.

The rigidities of top-down control are unlikely to achieve a sufficiently responsive system, but equally the system itself will need reform to encourage innovation in delivery, structure, support and financing.

The challenges are immense. They can only be met through freeing up the creativity that lies latent within the system, too long suppressed by excessive external constraint.

`Focus on the new lost generation'

Graham Hoyle, Chief executive, Association of Learning Providers

What further education really needs from the new Government is an early commitment to protect the two priorities that immediately benefit the economy most and assist those who are in greatest need of help as a consequence of the recession.

With nearly a million of them out of work, let us focus first on stopping the possibility of a new lost generation of young people, especially the large group of 16- and 17-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds who need better support.

The solution for them is continued strong government backing for apprenticeships and improved pre-apprenticeship provision for those not yet ready to enter the high-quality full programme. Employers need more skilled young people, which apprenticeship programmes can supply across more than 180 key sectors.

The other priority should be to arm unemployed adults with new skills up to level 2 to help them secure sustainable employment and this requires closer collaboration between government departments, including the establishment of joint commissioning as recommended by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

The Treasury wants to see greater value for money from skills programmes, so please keep faith in the demand-led policies that were adopted previously and press ahead with the introduction of skills accounts and the course-labelling proposals from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to enable individuals to exercise a genuine choice over their learning.

`Recognise and reward college staff'

Sally Hunt, General secretary, University and College Union

What further education really needs from the new Government is something resembling the recognition it deserves. It is FE that will have to rise to the challenge of record levels of youth unemployment and provide the skills and infrastructure for the recovery.

Colleges already educate and train 3.5 million people a year. More people sit A-levels in our colleges than they do our schools, yet FE is still the sector that no one wants to talk about.

Ninety per cent of students are satisfied with the teaching they receive in colleges and two-thirds of large employers that train their staff do it through these institutions. The new Government must recognise and properly reward the incredible work that staff and colleges do.

All politicians tell us that education is a priority - some used to repeat the mantra three times. However, rhetoric alone will not fund our colleges or students. We need clear commitments that the UK is not going to be left behind and the new Government needs to identify how it will ensure that.

Funding cuts and fewer staff will inevitably lead to some courses being axed, larger class sizes elsewhere and increased workloads for staff who survive the cull. Anyone who doesn't think this will lead to a drop in the quality of education is seriously misguided. We now need to move forward and make it clear to politicians that talking tough on cuts is easier than dealing with their fallout.

`Tackle old political sacred cows'

Lynne Sedgmore, Executive director, 157 Group

What further education really needs from the new Government is the will and commitment to ensure outstanding provision for FE students and to protect frontline services in colleges by making the necessary savings from national organisations and more inefficient parts of the educational system.

It needs the courage to challenge and tackle old political sacred cows in schools, in the interests of true equality and fairness for all learners aged 14 to 19.

The 157 Group have realistic solutions for future efficiencies; we are keen to share them and to work in partnership for the benefit of all learners.

We also want the Government see the critical value of FE colleges, their existing record of huge efficiencies and the central role they can play in economic and social recovery. We urge you to listen carefully to our professional voice and to see the distinctiveness and value for money that FE colleges offer and to work with us to reconfigure the sector landscape. Private sector solutions are not always the best or the most cost effective.

We are ready to step up to the plate in this next phase of public sector reform and efficiencies. In return it is time for you to introduce new freedoms, to remove all unnecessary bureaucratic burdens, to value professionals and to remove key barriers to our entrepreneurial expertise and ability.

Last but not least, we need the Government to be innovative and able to think outside the box. We need it to bring fresh ideas to a tough period of "more on less". We need it to inspire us. In essence to be a bold and motivating leader that ensures that our millions of learners achieve success and are able to realise their true potential as good citizens and productive employees.

`Trust FE and remove barriers'

Mark Dawe, Principal, Oaklands College

What further education really needs from the new Government is recognition of our role across education and skills along with our social and economic impact. We are part of the fabric of local communities and play a key role in social regeneration and economic development. We are a dedicated, flexible and collaborative sector and ask you to work with us to fulfil this role and provide us appropriate flexibility to respond to local needs.

We understand there will be challenges for all in ensuring national economic recovery and financial stability. All we ask is that you ensure fairness and transparency in funding and quality assessment across the education and skills sectors, to enable us to prove our genuine worth.

It is time to trust FE in the role of vocational lead within the education sector and remove institutional barriers that prevent those wanting to access full-time vocational learning.

For many 14-year-olds this means coming to college full-time rather than disengaging at school. For apprenticeships it means providing flexibility to allow priority funding to focus on a wider age band of 16- to 21-year- olds, enabling full-time learning progressing through to apprenticeships at 18. Finally, colleges could play a much greater role in delivering the HE agenda in a local, cost-effective manner.

We are here to help and can be a real catalyst for change both within education and skills and the wider economic agenda.

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