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White paper offers wealth of opportunity

Comment: Alan Thomson

Comment: Alan Thomson

When is a target not a target? Yes, this is a trick question. The answer, at least if you're in government, is: when it's an ambition.

As ambitions go, having a society where three out of four people under 30 have a degree or high-level vocational qualification is commendable. It is the sort of skills base a modern economy needs and which many of the UK's competitors have within their grasp already.

But ambitions can be a bit open-ended. Some aspire to learn to play the guitar but are unlikely to set a target, let alone a deadline, to master "Stairway to Heaven".

Unfortunately, as Lord Mandelson spells out in his foreword to the skills white paper (page 1), time is pressing when it comes to skills in the UK. The skills strategy, he says, is key to this Government's growth plan for economic recovery. Frankly, in light of this, ambition seems a bit relaxed.

Mostly, the white paper talks a great deal of sense and is bursting with targets. The aim for greater integration of further education, employers, universities and schools is sound and FE will surely welcome it.

FE has been a catalyst between these sectors for years and it is time its pivotal role was recognised, and hopefully rewarded by greater financial autonomy, through the proposals in the white paper.

Questions will no doubt be raised by the proposed scorecard. The idea is that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will compile it from a range of existing data. But how someone will assess how a course boosted people's earning potential remains to be seen.

It is also possible that, amid the desire of government to make sense of vocational education and its relationship to schools and higher education, colleges may feel cheated that they remain partly frozen out at both ends of the educational spectrum.

There is no green light for colleges to recruit full-time students from age 14. Instead, we find the proposed 14-19 university technical colleges are, bizarrely, neither universities nor colleges, but in fact school- sector academies.

There may also be disappointment that colleges will have only a supporting role in delivering composite honours and masters degrees. It will be a challenge for universities to run these hybrid degrees since they know nothing about apprenticeships.

But this, like much else in the white paper, may provide the opportunities that FE providers have been waiting for.

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