The New Deal for 18-25 year olds is a vital plank of the Government's social inclusion strategy. It aims to lead the young from benefit dependence into work and gives them a choice of routes to do this. One of the most popular options is a year in full-time education and training. But this option is failing to live up to expectations. Why?
Firstly, New Deal presumes there is a quick fix to long-term and complex problems. Training providers have 52 weeks to give people lacking basic skills the skills and confidence to hold down a job. Given that most of the people in this group have spent 11 years failing to get to this point, to achieve this in 52 weeks is unrealistic . Most need more time and flexibility than the regime allows.
The Government set its face against treating those on the programme as second-class students and New Deal becoming yet another "scheme". It promised full access to the education and training system.
In practice it has imposed not only the artificial limit of a one-year entitlement to study, but also restricted qualifications to Level 2 (equivalent to a C or above at GCSE).
Take the impact of this on Hayley Smith. Hayley left school at 16 with some GCSEs. At 22 she is a single parent with an ambition to become a primary school teacher. She scored very well on entrance tests and Tower Hamlets College offered her a place on an access to primary teaching course (a Level 3 course). But Hayley wasn't allowed to take up her place because those on the New Deal are allowed to take a Level 3 course "only in exceptional circumstances" and only where there is a guarantee of employment on completion. In practice, there have been few if any complaints from colleges about this - they prefer to quietly get around the regulations. Hayley was just unlucky. A typical response from colleges we spoke to was: "Our students have been allowed to do Level 3 but I don't want to publicise it because it is our local area being helpful in the face of central opposition."
Underlying these restrictions is a lack of vision and trust in the unemployed. While full-time students generally receive about 16 hours of formal tuition (together with learning support, homework and access to self-study facilities), New Dealers are required to undertake 30 hours of directly supervised study and attendance is checked at every turn. Presumably the assumption is that the unemployed are lazy or intend to cheat the system.
Once selected for full-time education and training, New Dealers should be treated and funded like other students. They, like other post-16 students, need to focus on developing their knowledge base, interpersonal skills and the intellectual flexibility required for work. Sometimes they will need to study for 25 hours a week, sometimes 40. The emphasis on control and supervision in the New Deal undermines motivation and self-organisation.
The starting point for the education and training option was radical: to get all the providers of post-19 education and training to work together to offer choices matching student demand. But this has not happened in practice.
Bureaucracy inhibits students' educational development, and makes New Dealers a burden to providers. We are required to complete at least 11 forms per person. So the cost of administering New Deal is more than double that for an Further Education Funding Council student (approximately pound;350 per student, compared to pound;125 ).
Moreover, payment per student is less than two-thirds of the rate of the FEFC, yet providers are expected to deliver twice the number of teaching hours.
We had hoped a demand-led programme would act as a catalyst for curriculum change, particularly in modularisation. But there is no money to develop courses to reflect students' needs, let alone push back the frontiers of teaching and learning. Many colleges are now moving away from admitting New Deal students on to mainstream courses.
The Government's approach to the New Deal education and training option reflects a lack of confidence in providers and in students. There needs to be some public analysis and debate about what works and what doesn't. Everyone wants New Deal to succeed but we need joined-up action from the Department for Education and Employment if it isn't to join the catalogue of training schemes that failed to provide a better deal for the unemployed.
Annette Zera is principal of Tower Hamlets College, London, and Tom Jupp is principal of City amp; Islington College, London