Tories must state their intentions

After a decade of unprecedented investment in further education and a huge amount of change, the voice of the Conservatives on post-16 education has sounded rather distant, if not irrelevant.

But with the prospect of a Tory government now being talked about by the man in the pub as if there could actually be one, the party's position is being taken seriously.

There is plenty of evidence in its green paper on FE that it has listened carefully to the concerns of colleges.

The question is whether the promise of more freedom for colleges will be enough to satisfy sceptics that David Cameron's brand of conservatism really will be kinder. FE was a considerably smaller activity when the Conservatives were last in power.

The fear will be that a Tory government - under pressure to cut public spending - will see FE as a soft target for cuts, and certainly a less visible one compared to schools or universities, where the eyes of the national media and the shires are focused.

What is clear is that fundamental questions remain unanswered. First, we don't know where the Tories will stand on the most historic change proposed by this Government: raising the leaving age to 18 - not due to be implemented in full until 2015, long after the next general election. If this makes the statute book, will a Conservative government go ahead with it?

To question the raising of the leaving age is to risk the wrath of the education establishment. But students who attend by compulsion could have a detrimental effect on those who attend by choice. This issue needs to be properly considered, and we need to know how a future Conservative government would address it.

Second, there is the question of the split which has seen one education department turned into two. We know the Conservatives' instinct is to reduce the number of quangos - even if, in reality, they have created plenty of their own. But will their love of small government see them reduce the number of jobs around the Cabinet table by restoring a single education department?

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