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Green: The further education sector needs to be supported, not denigrated

Speech to the Association of Colleges

I am always conscious, as an opposition spokesman, that it is important to resist the temptation to overstate problems. Politicians are held in low enough esteem already, without the added difficulty of turning every difficulty into a crisis. So today I will be as moderate as I can be in my use of language, given the combination of my two basic contentions; first, that the vocational education provided by FE Colleges is as vital as any other part of our educational system, and secondly, that both the rhetoric and the actions of the current Government seem designed to undermine the FE sector, to lower its morale internally, and to reduce its standing among the rest of the population.

I feel this more strongly having looked at just a couple of newspaper headlines in the course of researching this speech. One was an article by Margaret Hodge under the headline 'Pull your socks up FE, Or else…' Or else what? Close the colleges? Sack the principals? Empty rhetoric containing empty threats. The other was an article about general FE colleges with the cheering headline 'Is this goodbye?' Even as I maintain a stance of almost heroic balance in the face of this provocation, I can only conclude that the Government is badly out of touch with the reality of life in the FE sector today.

I want to talk about three things today. The current state of vocational training both for young people and adults; the reasons behind the current difficulties; and, the broad approach that and changes that I propose to adopt as the Conservative Party develops its policies.

So let me start by looking at the facts of vocational education. The Government has stated its aim clearly:

"We need to build a world class system of education which delivers the technical and vocational skills of an advanced economy."

That is the rhetoric, now to the truth. At the end of May the Government published figures on vocational education in the UK. They published these without any sort of press release. You will see why. The statistics showed that the total number of NVQs and GNVQs awarded has in fact fallen under Labour. And this drop was most acute among young people. Among 14 to 18 year olds, the proportion of level 2 awards given in vocational subjects dropped from 38 per cent to 23 per cent last year, and for level 3 awards from 28 per cent to 20 per cent.

So there are real problems. Whose fault is this? On Planet Hodge, the picture is clear. The FE sector is not pulling its weight and is letting down its students. On 7 March this year Mrs Hodge says wrote:

"At present, there is too much variation in performance. And too few people have the choice of quality opportunities they deserve. Four in 10 colleges need to be reinspected in one or more curriculum areas and a majority of work-based training providers are weak or unsatisfactory. One in five students drops out and when you add to that an average achievement rate which is lower than we would like, that means students have a 50-50 chance of coming away from post-16 learning having achieved what they set out to do…"

"Nor should we be afraid of reorganisation where it can lead to higher standards. One-size-fits-all approaches are not the answer, as the success of centres of vocational excellence have shown. Local reorganisations of 16-19 provision will be possible if the education bill is enacted. We want to start a debate about specialism so that all institutions can play to their strengths. Is it right to think that a general further education college can excel in offering everything from vocational education for 14-year-olds to A levels, to basic skills for adults to higher education?"

And just in case anyone was unsure of where she stood, on 12 March her officials confirmed that ministers wanted "to move away from the notion that everything ought to be done in one place." They then had the temerity to say, "Ministers are looking at this from the point of view of centres of excellence, rather than the concept of all-encompassing general further education colleges." Be clear about what she is threatening - closure for those colleges who fail to bend to the Government's will.

Frankly, this is garbage. Let's look at the facts:

· Your own Rosemary Clark confirmed that of the 25 colleges inspected since last April, only 10 per cent of curriculum areas needed reinspection, not the 40 per cent of colleges Margaret Hodge claimed.

· Stephen Grix, the post-16 inspector, told the Association for College Management, "Take the figures apart and you find 11 per cent judged outstanding, 47 per cent good and 35 per cent satisfactory. The remaining 7 per cent doesn't particularly worry me. If you had asked me before, I would have put it much higher."

· The Learning and Skills Council has shown that not only were 97 per cent of lessons judged to be satisfactory or better, but also that the amount of good or outstanding provision in programme areas increased significantly last year.

· The LSC also concluded that only 5 per cent of colleges were judged to have unsatisfactory management.

Given this, I am not surprised at the tone and content of the letter David Gibson wrote to Mrs Hodge in response. He wished:

"… to express the deep concerns and, in many quarters, the absolute anger of those professionals committed to the teaching and learning of four million students in our Further Education sector at the ill-conceived and dangerously misleading information you provided to the media in pre-briefings, in your Department's press release and to the conference on raising standards in Post 16 Learning …"

All that the sector wanted, he wrote, was the Government's:

"… positive support as opposed to dangerous attacks. We would also appreciate positive leadership which is, above all, motivational."

There are real difficulties, and real mistakes being made. Let me detail some of them.

Firstly, there is too much centralisation and detailed regulation.

This has a number of symptoms:

· Funding complexity. There are 73 different funding streams for colleges to manage.

· Multiple targets and accountability requirements.

· Intensive and overlapping audit, inspection and review requirements.

· Increasing intervention in institutional management.

I know about these from my time as a Governor of South Kent College, where the requirements imposed from the centre seemed to occupy a disproportionate amount of time, allowing far too little of the genuine creativity available from senior management to surface.

Secondly, the Government is guilty of controlling funding through tying it to the latest initiative from the centre.

In talking to those in your sector I have marvelled at how calm you remain. You are subject to substantial and growing accountability, and yet the Government does not - can not - let the FE sector have more money without substantial strings attached. The emphasis on bidding and initiatives, rather than on core funding, illustrates how the Government really thinks about those it flatters as 'partners in education'. This desire to control from the centre is ultimately self-defeating. The Goverment cannot work with you to raise standards and improve skills because such a relationship is dependent on mutual trust. Unfortunately for the FE sector and the students it serves, it is clear that the Government is unable to give that commitment to those it expects to carry out it bidding.

Thirdly, the Government has created an arbitrary target for university entrance, which sends a very clear signal that FE is second best.

The target for participation in HE reflects the problems that lie at the heart of this Government's attitude to continuing education. First, and most incredibly, of all, the Government cannot actually define what it means by Higher Education. We began asking them in October, but eight months later we are still in the dark. Is the HE experience a full degree course, a one year course, or a drive past Leeds University on a wet Tuesday. I just can not understand how we can have a target but not be able to define its subject matter.

Conservatives, of course, do want more people to continue in their education post 16, and post 18, when it is appropriate for them to do so. But we do not know if this means 40 per cent, 50 per cent or any other per cent. What we do know is that once this Government fixes a target, the only question becomes how to meet it within the given time, rather than what is the purpose of this target. Even with the best will in the world, the target shifts the focus away from the student and towards the system into which the student must fit. I think this is wrong. This approach smacks of this Governments two central failings in education, a determination to centralise and an egalitarianism that shades rapidly into social engineering. Neither approach does training and vocational education much good.

Fourthly, the Government and in particular Margaret Hodge has embarked upon a campaign of denigration and lack of certainty.

I have no desire to depress you by quoting any more ministerial pronouncements on the sector. But I do warn you that the threat to the general FE college, and indeed to the ability of colleges to make their own decisions on what they should be doing, comes right from the top of the Education Department: it comes from David Miliband. David is that most dangerous animal: an ambitious politician who knows how to do your job better than you do. The old phrase, 'The gentleman in Whitehall knows best' is now made flesh. Be afraid—be very afraid.

The effect of this detailed politicisation of the FE sector can be perverse. A principal of a college in a rural area wrote to a colleague of mine:

"For some years further education colleges have had a regime whereby students from supposed 'deprived' areas attract additional funding. The amount has grown year on year. The premium is now 10 per cent. In order to pay this premium the funding for other students has had to be reduced by 3 per cent. The problem is that the definition of deprivation is a wholly urban one. The criteria are social rather than educational. Car ownership is one. My son lives in Canary Wharf and earns far more than me. He doesn't have a car because it would be an inconvenience to him in London. Someone who lives in a penthouse suite in Mayfair is 'deprived' because they live in a flat. A farm worker in a tumble down tied cottage is not because he lives in a 'detached house'. The anomalies are endless."

Finally, the damage done to the whole concept of lifelong learning by the ILA fiasco has had an incalculable effect on the sector.

We all know the story, and it has been uncovered efficiently by the House of Commons Select Committee, but it remains a tale of breathtaking incompetence.

First came the aspiration. We all believe that it is important to give people the opportunity to improve upon their basic education, but the policies that flowed from this aspiration needed to be well thought out. What the Government actually settled on involved the equivalent of sticking a wet finger in the air. The policy of creating one million account rapidly turned into a manifesto commitment, and achieving the commitment becomes the primary objective, whatever the means. We need only to look at the HE target to see that.

Evidence given to the Select Committee by officials charged with the task of creating the ILA scheme described how the achievement of the target was of such importance that the scheme was drawn up around ensuring that the target was met. Incredibly, the only information required from a learning provider by the Government was their name, their address and the details of a bank account where the money was going to be sent. Any warnings from the industry were trampled under the stampede to fulfil the target.

The new scheme came into being in September 2000 with results of which we are now sadly familiar. The Government reached its targets a year early and stories grew of just how active some of the unscrupulous had become in helping themselves to taxpayers cash.

When the time came to put on the brakes, or identify those who were guilty of fraud or abuse, the Government found that its failure to set up the appropriate systems meant that it could not do so. The plug had to be pulled, on innocent and guilty alike and the whole scheme came to a shuddering halt towards the end of last year. It has not yet been reinstated.

It is difficult to know where to start in assessing what the greatest damage has been. For a number of learning providers the cost has been too great. They have lost jobs and businesses, and the private learning provider market artificially stimulated by this Government scheme, has been wrecked. For some students the impact has been of massive let down. Tempted to come back into education, they have suffered from the lack of quality control in the education they received, or, in the greater majority of cases, by the premature end of the scheme, which the Government was unable to control.

One final thing adds insult to injury. As you will be aware the Government announced a proposed shut down date of the system of 7 December 2001, but overnight this was brought forward by a fortnight. This left many providers, who had signed contracts with students but not yet registered with the Government, stranded. The Government has persistently refused to pay any compensation to those who could prove that they had suffered financial loss. I was delighted when the Select Committee reported this point strongly and one Labour member said that, whatever the legal situation, 'there was a moral obligation' on the Government to pay. As some of you will know from first hand experience, the Government does not share this sense of morality.

So there are five serious failures, none of which can be laid at the door of the FE sector. You are being let down by a Government that is too often more interested in finding a scapegoat than righting a wrong.

So what alternative approach is on offer? It is not yet the time for detailed policies, as we are still learning how best to implement our principles of taking power away from the centre, to release the energies of those who know most because they have day-to-day experience, and to help in particular those who need it most. Nevertheless I can unveil four ways in which I would want to see the relationship between Government and the FE sector change.

The first is my insistence that vocational skills are as important as academic skills for many learners, of all ages beyond primary school. Our national failure to recognise this goes back a depressingly long way. In 1864—yes 1864—a Royal Commission said,

"The one point in which Germany is overwhelmingly superior to England is in schools, and in the education of all classes of people."

The German polytechnics were singled out for praise since they were evidently helping to maintain,

"… the adequate supply of men competent, so far as theory is concerned, to take the place of managers and superintendents of industrial works. In England there is still a great want of this last class of person."

In 1944 RA Butler made a bold attempt to correct this historical wrong through his Education Act. It attempted to launch a tripartite secondary education - grammar, technical and modern - and set out provisions for compulsory continuing education for all young people up to the age of 18. Those who had left school and stared to work were to be obliged to attend for either one whole day or two half days per week at some form of continuing education.

But his ideas were never fully implemented, and in 1976 Prime Minister James Callaghan in his famous Ruskin speech expressed the same concerns. He talked of complaints from industry that new recruits from schools sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job", adding "… many of our best trained students have no desire to join industry … there is concern about standards of numeracy." He concluded that "Education should equip children to the best of their ability for a lively constructive place in society and also … fit them to do a job of work."

So we should look at how to bring your expertise into schools, so that children who are disaffected do not have to wait until they are 16 to obtain a decent vocational education. I know the first steps have been taken down this path but this is an urgent problem which is not being taken seriously enough.

The second point is how much we can learn from abroad. When I saw 13 year olds in Dutch school enjoying plastering a real brick wall, and re-wiring a room, an when I observe the close involvement in students and courses of companies in Germany and Denmark, I observe a vocational system that is more responsive than ours, and which creates higher esteem among the students. Whatever the virtues and vices of the LSC, and that would be another whole speech, we are nothing like as good as other countries at putting vocational skills as high on the educational agenda as they should be. There are some good things in the 14-19 Green Paper, but on the whole it seems to me to be a timid document which does not acknowledge the scale of the challenge.

The third point is that, just as for schools, funding for FE is both too complicated and too rigidly controlled by the centre. Estelle wants to be the Headmistress of 25,00 schools. That's bad enough, but she also wants to be the Principal of thousand colleges as well. She's not good enough to do it, I wouldn't be good enough to do it, if the Archangel Gabriel were Secretary of State for Education he wouldn't be able to take on the detailed responsibilities that this Government takes on itself. We have an inspection regime that is, how shall I put it, up to the job of making detailed intervention if it needs to. Decisions on how to spend the money are best left at the level nearest the students who are going to benefit from it.

My fourth point is a general application of this particular financial issue. There should be less central planning of what the FE sector is trying to do, less setting of detailed targets across the board, and more respect for the professionalism of those within the sector to do what is best for their students and potential students. Not least there should be more respect for the ability of the students themselves to understand what they want. The way to help them is to simplify the qualifications on offer and make sure those qualifications are relevant to employers. Renaming existing qualifications in the hope that somehow this makes them more desirable is a small example of the prevalent triumph of spin over substance.

This Government has constantly sought to demoralise and control the further education sector, despite displaying its own incompetence in the ILA fiasco. It should remember that it relies on those same people to deliver its promises to improve standards and participation.

The effects of this Government's appalling attitude are now being felt. Fewer people are taking vocational qualifications and standards of work-based learning are falling. Demoralised teachers and lecturers are leaving the profession as never before.

The further education sector is crying out to be trusted to provide the high standard of education for which it is more than capable. It needs to be supported, not denigrated. If the Government is not careful there simply will not be the providers needed to give thousands of young people and adults the education they deserve.

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