The government cull of publicly-funded adult qualifications comes under the critical gaze of Martin Tolhurst
Readers will doubtless agree on two valuable features of FE: its roots being in local communities and its ability to tailor provision to local needs and demands.
Protecting this role and value has never been more important than it is in times of public spending austerity.
In areas like Newham, East London, meeting the needs of employers and individuals, and doing so in a customer-focused way, is vital. Experience has shown that what works in the most demanding and challenging situations, works as the template everywhere, as long as it retains that key element of flexibility.
Also, there is often little point in national prescriptions because these decisions are made too far from the experience and needs of real communities and employers (the majority of whom are small and medium-sized enterprises whose voices are under-valued in national policy making).
Instead, we must constantly develop the training which local businesses need, and which local people demand.
Short and flexible qualifications for adults play an absolutely central part in supporting a more dynamic and demand-led response to the labour market.
They offer numerous advantages. Firstly, they can be tailored to meet precise needs in the local or regional economy in a way which longer, linear qualifications cannot.
We’ll end up with fewer skilled and qualified people, and more people left behind
A credit-based system of qualifications, in particular, enables providers to work closely with employers and individuals to design a bespoke package of education directly relevant to their needs and interests.
Secondly, short or flexible adult qualifications are vital for widening participation (and this applies equally to both people and employers, who are hard to reach).
Although many of our learners could, and do, achieve success on full programmes from entry level to postgraduate, many cannot do so without the facility to build their achievement and success through smaller bites, and often also through a discontinuous, rather than a linear, pattern of learning.
Flexibility, rather than outdated and outmoded large/linear qualifications, is the way forward, as is changing how people learn and the contexts in which they do it.
Our experience at Newham, doubtless replicated across the country, has demonstrated over more than two decades that flexibility and customisation fuel and support learner progression, and engage employers and sectors of employment in qualifications and skills and development.
More urgently, we have a range of important vocational and professional development programmes at levels two to four, which are ‘culled’ next year by the 15-credit cut-off.
Mostly, they’re designed to encourage adults back into skills training and to achieve fuller qualifications and progression to level three.
Their removal will mean that we will take fewer risks with uncertain and as yet uncommitted learners, which means we’ll end up with fewer skilled and qualified people, and more people left behind.
Learners and employers may have had negative previous experiences of education, may find the school year irrelevant to their circumstances, or may be bemused by the demand that learning has to be linear in a world that now favours ‘on-demand’ and ‘just enough and just in time’ as key features of high quality services.
The government is wrong to cull qualifications simply because of their size. Indeed, it is pushing our skills system in the wrong direction.
In proposing such a cull, ministers and their advisers fundamentally misunderstand our sector and its wider role in society.
Skills Funding Agency interim chief executive Barbara Spicer may claim, writing to this paper, that the proposals will ensure “rigour within the offering”.
In fact, the problem is that ‘rigour’ has been misidentified and interpreted on the basis of old models (long, inflexible and linear qualifications), which, despite the rhetoric of ‘gold standards’ are rapidly losing their relevance to the modern world.
Martin Tolhurst CBE, interim principal Newham College (formerly principal of the college from 1991 to 2010)