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Wanted: greater clarity of vision

If post-16 is to thrive, it needs joined-up policies from the government, the people behind a new research project suggest

This Government has taken post-16 learning more seriously than previous administrations by allocating to it substantial funding channelled through a new single planning and funding body: the Learning and Skills Council with a budget of pound;9 billion. Political expectations are very high: it is seen as the key player in the Government's agenda for changing the culture of lifelong learning and meeting the skills needs of a competitive economy.

In January last year we started a three-year research project examining the effects of policy on teaching, learning, assessment and inclusion for three groups of marginalised learners: 16 to 19-year-olds on Level 1 and 2 courses (GCSE equivalent) in further education; learners in the workplace on adult basic skills courses; and unemployed adults in community-based adult basic skills provision.

What emerges from our initial analysis is a complex and constantly changing context for learning. A more unified learning and skills sector is broadly seen as a positive and necessary step in overcoming the fragmentation and inequalities of the previous post-16 arrangements, but the people we interviewed also highlighted problems, some of which may not simply abate with the passing of time.

First, there is an underlying policy tension between the need for collaboration and the continued climate of competition between providers.

This tension could deepen if the LSC insists on the more entrepreneurial approach by colleges signalled in the skills strategy and, in particular, in the recent consultation document, Investing in Skills: Taking forward the Skills Strategy. Moreover, it is not clear whether ministers, following the publication of the Department for Education and Skills's five-year strategy, still support an overt planning and rationalising role for the LSC in relation to 16 to 19 provision.

Second, interviewees have pointed to the confusion over arrangements for quality improvement. Some key players are competing to carry out this work, but there appears to be little support for institutions gaining "satisfactory" grades in inspection to improve the quality of their teaching and learning.

Third, the LSC and its partner agencies are expected to carry through a transformation of learning provision without all the necessary tools for the job, because much of the policy landscape - for example, the qualifications system, the nature of employer engagement and competitive relationships between post-16 institutions - still remains relatively unreformed. The LSC and its partners could, therefore, be seen as being dependent on top-down steering mechanisms (such as funding, inspection and targets) that are aimed primarily at providers rather than at learners and employers, and may be having partial or even perverse effects on provision for the key groups of marginalised learners whose needs the new learning and skills sector is supposed to meet.

If this sector is to become more inclusive and effective, what is needed is greater clarity in the political vision, policy consistency and a set of frameworks that provide incentives for all partners within it. This might involve a commitment to a comprehensive and unified ladder of provision at 14 to 19 and a national scheme of credit for adults; a focus on quality improvement across all provision based on a greater sense of professional ownership of targets; a clear collaborative institutional framework to meet the needs of all learners in a locality; supportive and collective area-wide accountability mechanisms; space for local and regional determination of funding within strong national frameworks; greater democratic accountability and an equitable set of demands on both employers and educationalists.

Presently, however, the LSC is working in a quasi-unified sector without a consistent educational compass and without a strong set of inclusive frameworks, such as those identified above, that can motivate learners and employers as well as providers. The evidence from our research so far suggests that the creation of a more inclusive and effective learning system, both national and local, remains a long way off.

By Frank Coffield, Sheila Edward, Ann Hodgson, Ken Spours and Richard Steer of the Institute of Education, University of London, and Ian Finlay of the University of Strathclyde

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