Skills Minister Nick Boles has posed a series of hard questions for the future of FE and skills. But for Lynne Sedgmore they raise just as many issues about the minister and the government as they do of the sector.
It is unusual for a Minister to be as clear as Nick Boles has been about his priorities for discussion with the sector.
At the Association of Employment and Learning Providers conference, he set out the same four questions that he first mentioned in Westminster Hall just over a fortnight ago.
They are a good guide to the areas where government is focusing attention in relation to FE and each indicates the possible direction of change.
They also reveal some policy confusion and unhelpful assumptions.
The first question concerns the age at which vocational education should start — should it be 14 or 16?
It raises issues about the role of university technical colleges (and their half-brothers about which ministers rarely speak — studio schools and career colleges) as well as the role of FE colleges themselves.
The fact that most FE colleges currently undertake a richer and more complex set of missions, which inter-relate and can be mutually supportive, is routinely ignored
It is odd however because one might have thought that the question had been answered definitively by his colleague [Schools Minister] Nick Gibb who has only recently insisted that all pupils follow the academic path prescribed by the EBacc until age 16.
The insistence that all pupils study English, maths, science, a modern foreign language and history or geography, as well as moves to make GCSEs harder effectively squeezes out time for any serious engagement with vocational education. Is the question really still open or do ministers just not talk to each other?
The second question should quash any thoughts that the ‘Dual Mandate’ consultation was closely aligned with Vince Cable and might fall from the agenda when he fell from power.
Mr Boles asks exactly the same question. ‘Should colleges specialise?’ and to avoid any doubt asks whether some should focus more on ‘higher level skills’ and some on ‘training’ for those who have not had an ‘adequate education’.
Far from being novel, the Dual Mandate proposals reflect what appears to be the default option in Whitehall when considering FE — separate out higher level work into a limited set of high status institutions which are allowed to prosper: and retain a set of post-16 secondary moderns subject to ever more detailed central prescription.
The fact that most FE colleges currently undertake a richer and more complex set of missions, which inter-relate and can be mutually supportive, is routinely ignored.
The third question asks who should make decisions about any re-organisation; ministers, local enterprises or combined authorities. The answer ‘none of the above’, though perfectly reasonable, doesn’t appear to be contemplated. The question moreover is ominously silent about whether ‘making decisions’ is limited to approval of college proposals or prefigures a much more active set of interventions as seen in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland where there has been sector wide rationalisation.
Whichever it is, it is curious that a minister who believes passionately in the efficacy of markets should limit the choice to one of which public sector bureaucracy should dictate the re-organisation of independent colleges.
It also seems risky to contemplate wholesale structural change at a time of destabilising cuts in funding.
The final question asks whether we have the right set of qualifications and whether the government has ‘been prescriptive enough’.
It is hard to know where to start. Someone should take Mr Boles aside and point out the long and sorry history of failed government reforms to the curriculum — GNVQs, AVCEs, the Diploma, the QCF.
They should point out the slowly unfolding disaster of compulsory resits in GCSE English and maths; they should show him the massive degree of prescription embodied in the funding and eligibility rules set out in ever expanding documentation from the Skills Funding Agency.
Like FE college specialization, the reform of vocational qualifications has long been seen in Whitehall as magic bullet, but a true reforming minister should ask himself whether he really wants to see any more of this.