Where did we go wrong with our skills revolution?

21st February 1997 at 00:00
What I don't understand is, what have we all done wrong? I won't go into all the gloom and doom of the financial straits we are facing through the loss next year of the unlimited funds we have earned by exceeding our targets. That is already well-documented elsewhere, including, I hope, in the in-tray of every MP in the land. And if they can understand the ins and outs of our funding methodology, we must all have at least level 6 in communication skills.

But where did we go wrong? We were told the country required, immediately if not sooner, a skills revolution in the workplace if we were to sustain, let alone improve, our economic position in world markets. Not only were skills needed, but basic education wasn't that good, even when people were in work.

To this end National Targets for Education and Training were set. Colleges would be linchpins in meeting these targets by the end of the century (as if that would also be the end of the world).

More 16-year-olds would stay in full-time education and achieve basic education targets. They would progress to higher levels at the first whiff of success. Adults who had missed out would spend their "unemployed" time achieving the qualifications they needed to get back to work. Colleges would work with business to give employees the training and transferable skills needed for the 21st century.

I apologise for running through all this again. You know it all - you've known it since before incorporation. It goes back at least to the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative. The difference is that then we weren't funded for growth. In 1993, the new sector was funded for growth; indeed, it became necessary to grow if we weren't to go out of business. And what did we do? We grew.

How and by how much depended largely on where we started from. In this college we fell on general national vocational qualifications which superseded what we'd been doing. One in three full-time students now take general national vocational qualifications. Students on foundation (lowest level) courses wouldn't have touched full-time education in the past.

Three of our ex-foundation students are now on advanced courses, and one will start a degree course next year. (And no, it isn't about the lack of quality in GNVQ. It's about at last being able to encourage students who progress at a slower rate than the average.) We have also introduced part-time courses for adults. Those for women who want to return to work when the children are older, or now, because they are older, have been particularly successful. The students tell us that they have gained the confidence to think that they can do what they want to, and achieve the qualifications to do it. They often sign up for very basic courses and come back for more advanced courses when they realise that they can achieve at them. They are addicted to lifetime learning.

In a borough with good adult education already, we've looked for gaps in provision, or areas where no one can provide enough. We've filled most of our courses. We've developed partnerships with businesses, the local authority and the training and enterprise council. Our adult students come back for more. Many get jobs. Some of them now work for us. We are working with schools on progression and offering courses to schools for their teachers and support staff. We still have lots of ideas about expansion which we have not had time to develop.

Funding drove us down this path, but we've welcomed the chance to help those who wouldn't otherwise have the chance to turn round their past, to help themselves and by doing so help the country achieve its targets. Our expansion has been in line with our mission as a comprehensive college. We've achieved more than we ourselves might have expected four years ago.

Naively, we thought we would be flavour of the month if we actually exceeded what was being asked of us, especially when we did so within a continually tightening constraint of efficiency savings. "More for less" was quite hard to get used to, but it is at least understandable. "Less for less" is an absolutely inscrutable motto in the light of what we've achieved. So we seem to be being punished for doing so well and exceeding expectations, and we don't understand, can't understand, won't understand the rationale. Or were we to be punished all along? Were the targets not a national imperative at all, but a device to force further education to tighten its belt until its head fell away from its heels?

What will we do now? If you look out of our front door you can look left at one of the most deprived areas locally, or you can look right towards a prosperous suburban area. So far we've been looking left. If this goes on we shall be concentrating on looking right. We'll encourage young executives to come to us to polish up languages for their holidays abroad; we'll lay on courses to lure in the grey pound. And if 20 well-heeled people appear wanting a macrame course, we'll charge them Pounds 70 or Pounds 80 and sign them up. But we still won't understand what was wrong with what we were doing before.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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