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Time to learn from post-16 service history;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

THREE years ago Gordon Brown, addressing the annual jamboree of training and enterprise councils, described them as "an idea whose time had come."

Who could have imagined the real meaning of the then shadow Chancellor's words? Certainly not the people gathered at TEC '99 in Birmingham. On the same platform where those prophetic remarks were made, David Blunkett told TECs and a host of other institutions that their time had indeed come. They are to go and sooner rather than later.

By the dawn of a new millennium, Britain's laggard education and training system will be thrust upon a new course. Despite the lack of public interest, the White Paper contains proposals as significant as the foundation of continuing education over half a century ago.

Education minister Lord Percy, appointed to implement the post-compulsory parts of Butler's 1944 Act, went into battle against an educational fraternity unwilling to develop technical skills on a par with those emerging in post-war Germany. Like so many politicians who have run a similar gauntlet, the battle to tackle our underachievement in post-16 education has had only limited success.

Even if the Robbins report on HE expansion resulted in a second chance for thousands, adult and continuing learning still only touches those aspiring enough to negotiate the system.

Despite the progressive policies of the 1960s and the Conservatives' reforms of the early 90s, the legacy of underachievement is still the main barrier to progress. The current system, which began with the creation of TECs and the incorporation of FE colleges, has presided over a social fabric and skills base eroded by the forces of unfettered competition.

One-fifth of 20-year olds and seven million adults lack basic skills, and we are well behind our major competitors in the proportion of the population with at least a basic qualification. We lack a recognisable qualifications framework within which young people can undertake "bite-size" chunks of learning which can lead into full qualifications. Barely half our young people reach NVQ level 3, compared to three-quarters in Germany. Over 20 million adults lack the crucial technical and intermediate qualifications which all surveys say employers need. But the problems go beyond the failings post-16 provision.

Employer investment in skills is low. Investment in skills by small and medium sized enterprises - where 1 in 2 people work - is not adequate. One third of employees have never been offered training, and management development is patchy. Individuals find it difficult to make informed decisions either because advice is poor or the learning on offer is irrelevant to the needs of the labour market.

The challenge for ministers is immense. The Department for Education and Employment must handle the transition carefully and build on its unique position as the guardian of the key life chances for an inclusive learning society. Despite the protestations of a few vested interests there is much goodwill toward what the government is attempting.

The answer to vocational relevance today is integration, not segregation. And the Government's preferred language of learning and skills provides people with a new vantage point. The learning and skills councils will connect the strategies of two establishments who have for too long remained doggedly independent.

While further education must retain a wider appeal than just employability, the whole post-16 framework has a fresh opportunity to engage in a rapidly changing economy. Institutions must collaborate, knowing that the destinies of business, individuals and the community are inextricably linked. But if we are to make real progress, then the employer that promotes investment in skills should become the norm rather than the exception.

The path ahead is a tricky one. If the system is to become customer-driven and not Whitehall-led there must be real devolution - regional and local. Employer and community engagement is vital. Politicians and senior officials must learn the difference between coherence and the dead hand of central control.

There can be no doubt that the White Paper presents a more coherent, collaborative approach, but the desire for better accountability must be tempered by a need for diversity, innovation and risk-taking. So the regional dimension should be strengthened. Local lifelong learning partnerships must be more than a forum of local producer interests. Now might be a good time to learn from history.

Tom Bewick is a policy director at the National Training Organisation National Council. Until recently he worked in the Labour Party's policy unit, where he advised the Secretary of State on the post -16 review

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