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Tone-deaf ministers continue to call the tune

PIPERS get paid and tunes get called. Sometimes, no doubt, the pipers would rather play something else, but that has never been the way of the world. So, professional pipers make the best of it.

When Mozart was a jobbing musician playing gigs at some of the classiest courts of Europe, he might be asked to compose something for his host, and not infrequently he was given instructions to knock a piece out which would suit whatever combination of instruments the other houseguests happened to play. Knowing that the customer was always right, even when mad, Mozart obliged.

I don't suppose that any of us who work in FE would want to be another Mozart - after all, who wants to die in abject poverty and total obscurity in their mid-30s? However, we are continually put in the position of doing the bidding of those whose expertise, shall we say, lies elsewhere.

This government has been an excellent sponsor of colleges. Money has been found to boost college budgets for a number of specific purposes. Few of us, if any, would quarrel with the Government's emphasis on attracting more students, on making full use of new technologies, and on raising standards. All good tunes, played at a brisk tempo. If they had asked us about our preferences, we would no doubt have come up with a similar list.

But things are not always so rosy, and a recent example makes the point. The Government, for which read ministers because there has been no parliamentary debate about it, has decided to scrap the foundation and intermediate levels of the general national vocational qualification. This may not be an item which arouses passions over the nation's breakfast tables, and it may not even be a matter about which college staff feel very strongly, although I suspect that they do. What does matter is that the Government, through its figleaf-shaped mouthpiece, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has taken a decision which is not really theirs to take.

In the qualifications market there are suppliers and customers. The Government is neither of those. Qualifications are an expensive product, offered for sale by examining bodies. Colleges decide whether to buy those products or not. In making that decision we look, obviously, at the needs of our students. It's what we do all the time in collees, and I am sure that we are now quite good at it. Certainly I would back our on-the-ground expertise against that of ministers who have not worked in further education for some considerable time, and never at all with foundation or intermediate level GNVQs.

If they had asked us in the colleges, we could have pointed out that the rebranding of the doomed qualifications as vocational GCSEs, may suit the needs of schools who could offer pupils in Yamp;ears 10 and 11 combinations of traditional and vocational GCSEs, but it leaves colleges with nothing to offer at-risk 16-year-olds other than a repeat of GCSEs, vocational or traditional. A menu made up of re-heated and re-hashed items is always going to be unappealing.

But they didn't ask, unless the QCA, blown all over the place by governmental breezes, is thought by ministers to be the sounding board for colleges. The Association of Colleges is the proper mouthpiece for the sector, and it is known to be alarmed at this decision. This does not seem to weigh with ministers, who have their own views about the pattern of qualifications which suit students' needs.

At least this episode helps to explain one of the abiding mysteries of recent educational history: the continuing survival of GCE A-levels. This qualification, designed for the simpler world of the 1950s, was widely recognised as having exhausted its appropriateness to a more complex world, in which a retentive memory and the ability to perform in the artificial circumstances of an examination room were hopeless predictors of success at university and not much use as an indicator of employability.

The teachers thought so and said so, as did the professional associations. Employers said so, even university vice-chancellors said so. Headteachers of the great public schools took time out from feeding the peacocks and mowing the lawns to say so. Successive reports commissioned by successive governments said so. Yet nothing was done to replace A-levels, and little to reform them.

The reason? Ministers decided that voters liked A-levels, therefore they must stay. Today's ministers must think that there are absolutely no votes in foundation and intermediate GNVQs, and lots in GCSEs.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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