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Westminster has much to learn from Holyrood

England and Scotland really are two nations when it comes to further education. Two major conferences recently revealed just how stark the difference has become since devolution.

At the first, Alan Johnson, in only his second speech as Education Secretary for England, cracked the whip at underperforming colleges. "I will increase the Learning and Skills Council's powers of intervention through legislation if I have to," Mr Johnson told the new Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) conference in Birmingham.

Meanwhile, in Aviemore, Allan Wilson, Scotland's Deputy Minister for Lifelong Learning, gave praise at the Association of Scotland's Colleges conference for the "outstanding success" of the sector. Citing the penultimate report of Scotland's "Foster review", Unlocking Potential, Mr Wilson said: "The college sector turns every pound;1 we invest into an asset worth pound;3.20."

Such findings gave him ammunition to fight the college case when meeting the First Minister, he said.

Does that mean colleges are better in Scotland? Not in the least - overall performance north and south is on a par. However, as one college principal put it to me: "Your ministers see the glass as half empty; ours see it as half full and deserving of a top-up."

Whether this means the Scots will do better than the English from the comprehensive spending review in 2007 is a moot point. What is of most significance is the difference in political approach - epitomised by the two reviews. English governments make a habit of using inquiries to distance themselves from trouble. They appoint one of the "great and the good", like Sir Andrew Foster, to make a grand sweep of affairs, with follow-up consultations. Too often, the most pressing recommendations are not implemented.

The Scottish Executive is not averse to this approach. But, where it counts, it creates inquiry teams - in this case with half the members drawn from colleges - with consultations as part of the scrutiny. That is not to say everything runs smoothly.

Mark Batho, head of lifelong learning for the executive, did speak of failure when he addressed the ASC conference, but with a subtly different approach. "What ministers don't want to see is colleges falling into holes that others have avoided," Mr Batho said.

And he implied that some blood was spilled in behind-the-scenes clashes between officials and professionals during the review. Nevertheless, with the final version of the report still to be printed, a palpable sense of ownership within the colleges has emerged.

So, why didn't Alan Johnson make sure the long-awaited quality improvement strategy - or a penultimate draft - was published at the QIA's first conference? It would have sent out all the right signals.

There is the difference. Westminster has to control everything, to direct from the centre. As a result, many delegates left the conference with the impression that the new agency was just another tool of government and that they, the professionals, were not to be trusted.

In England, college leaders will not gain the full trust of politicians until they follow the party line. That means agreeing to the utilitarian skills-driven agenda, shaped by what industry says it needs. In England, ministers truly believe it is possible to distinguish between learning and skills, and national policy.

In Scotland, it is immediately obvious that lifelong learning still has primacy over skills, without marginalising the latter. Tom Kelly, ASC chief executive, explained: "The Scottish Executive decided it did not want only the market-driven approach. Income and skills deficiencies are still the biggest problems we face, so we don't expect the relevance side to go away.

But for the executive, community links and lifelong learning are still paramount."

Here lies the fundamental difference between the Foster review and Unlocking Potential. Foster is too often couched in negative terms. It exhorts colleges to specialise, to adopt a market-oriented agenda and to respond to employers' needs. Lifelong learning is included almost as an afterthought. Whether employers know what they need, and whether government is critical enough of such views, goes largely unchallenged.

Unlocking Potential is quite the opposite. It talks positively about 13 per cent of students having disabilities, about the disproportionate representation from deprived communities and ethnic minorities, and about the fact that 38 per cent of college enrolments relate directly to work.

In Scotland, the focus on lifelong learning seems not to be distorted by the lens of industry and commerce. Nor should it be so in England. However, a million adults will lose college places over two years south of the border with the shift in emphasis.

Ironically, basic skills tutors - hard to recruit and train at the best of times - are among the first facing redundancy because of a government policy that marginalises much lifelong learning. Now, ministers want to step up their drive against illiteracy and innumeracy. But who pays?

This week we saw Mr Johnson, in a speech to the Institute of Directors, pledging to eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy by 2020 - a remarkably ambitious idea. Cracking the whip at employers, he said it was no longer acceptable to indulge in "the luxury of failure". He threatened "radical action", including compulsory training levies on companies. He must be thinking: "If only we had not so undermined the lifelong learning agenda that Labour created with such pride a decade ago."

Scotland beware.

Ian Nash is FE editor of The TES.

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