Fine news for FE?

25th September 2015 at 01:00

‘Back door to a ring fence’

A proposed GCSE “resit levy” – which would involve schools effectively being “fined” to support colleges’ efforts to help students retake English and maths – was met with some scepticism when it was suggested last month. But it seems that the idea has attracted the interest of skills minister Nick Boles himself.

From this month, learners who did not achieve a grade C or better in English or maths will be required to resit the qualifications. This policy has placed a strain on colleges, which have already made moves to allow greater numbers of learners to resit their GCSEs.

The idea of getting the schools that learners used to attend – and which failed to ensure they received good passes the first time around – to help cover the resulting costs for colleges was put forward in a report by the Policy Exchange thinktank (see bit.ly/PolicyExchangeReport).

Coincidentally, Boles was founding director of the thinktank in 2002, which may go some way towards explaining his apparent curiosity about the idea.

FErret has learned that officials in the minister’s team have contacted a small number of colleges to discuss how the idea could be developed further.

Blackpool and the Fylde College has confirmed that it was among the institutions asked to give their views, but a spokeswoman said the college had no plans to carry out any exploratory work on the policy at this stage.

The Department for Education also remained tight-lipped. A source within the DfE said officials had read the Policy Exchange report “with interest”, but had no plans to announce anything prior to the spending review.

The spending review would seem to be the main reason why the idea has proved to be so appealing to some officials. While the education budget for 5-16s is currently protected, the DfE is expected to have to make cuts of at least 25 per cent – some £3.5 billion – as part of wider efficiency drives being demanded by the Treasury. And the only places for the axe to fall within the department are 16-18 education and childcare, meaning further pain for FE providers appears more than likely in the coming years.

While the resit levy seems, on the face of it, to be a fairly clunky mechanism for shuffling money from one group of cash-strapped providers (schools) to another (colleges), it would at least allow the government to quietly reapportion cash from its protected pot to those FE providers most at risk.

“It’s essentially a back-door way of getting around the ring fence,” one insider said. “I think Nick realises the need to do something on this. This looks like a really silly way of moving resources around. But there’s definitely some interest, on a political level, to get around the spending review.”

Like taking Scandi from a baby

Last month, Boles also took part in a visit to Norway to find out about the country’s approach to vocational education, training and apprenticeships. And FErret gathers the skills minister was rather impressed by what he saw.

So, given that education ministers have a proud track record of cherry-picking initiatives from abroad, what policies could soon be crossing the North Sea? The most interesting characteristic of the Norwegian system is that secondary-age students are given the opportunity to start apprenticeships while they are still at school. And rather than being expected to achieve a “certificate of upper-secondary education”, those that go down the apprenticeship route can instead work towards a “trade certificate” or the wonderfully named “journeyman’s certificate”.

Given our fondness for Scandinavian exports such as Borgen, The Killing and Ikea, who would bet against Norwegian-style school apprenticeships becoming the next manifestation of Scandi cool?

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