Labour won’t reinvent the wheel – good, but which one?

Labour manifesto pledge: Abandon plans for new technical colleges and use funding for more teachers

Mick Fletcher argues FOR

If there is one thing that almost everyone in FE can agree on, it is the need for a reduction in the degree of turbulence faced by the sector. No-one is against change but there is a clear consensus that too much of the change affecting the sector in recent years has been ill thought-out, poorly managed and above all temporary. In that sense, the proposal by Labour to abandon plans to reinvent the wheel will be music to very many ears.

The precise wording in Labour’s manifesto is as follows: “Labour would abandon Conservative plans to once again reinvent the wheel by building new technical colleges”. Clear enough you might think, but it is symptomatic of the state of the sector that there are at least three wheels they could be referring to. Most people would be happy for them to abandon all three.

READ MORE: AGAINST abandoning plans for new technical colleges

One possibility is that they are referring to new University Technical Colleges (UTCs). At the time of the last election the main parties were vying with each other as to who could open the most UTCs but as each day passes the failure of this educational experiment becomes more evident. It’s not that vocational education for some 14-19 year olds is a bad idea; it’s just that it’s crazy to allow a group of well-connected idealists to attempt to graft a few 14-19 institutions onto a system that rejects a 14-19 phase; and it’s silly to set up schools to deliver an FE curriculum.

Another possibility is that they are referring to national colleges, which at one stage appeared to be springing up with every ministerial whim. After the new Nuclear College and the HS2 College, one half expected the National College of Brexit Negotiators. Fortunately, the pace of invention seems to have slowed; and ‘new’ in relation to national colleges seems to have more to do with badging collaborative activity than setting up new structures. One of the recent ones, for example, is described as ‘a network of hubs’, seemingly reinventing spokes as well as wheels.

One half expected the National College of Brexit Negotiators

The most likely candidates for Labour’s dustbin, however, would seem to be the proposed new Institutes of Technology (IoT) intended to be the flagships of the new technical revolution launched by Lord Sainsbury and supported by the Industrial Strategy green paper.

The Conservative pitch at this election is about stability but their policy on IoTs has been very far from stable. In the Post-16 Skills Plan – not yet 12 months old but looking increasingly out of date – the IoTs are seen as being built around existing infrastructure (though playing second fiddle to yet more national colleges). By the time of the Industrial Strategy green paper however, just six months later, they were announcing plans to develop “prestigious new Institutes of Technology to deliver higher-level technical education in all regions”. In the Conservative manifesto – barely three months further on – they had moved from all regions to one in every major city. At this pace of policy development there’ll be one around every corner before Christmas.

Labour is absolutely right to call a halt to this nonsense. We have a perfectly good network of FE colleges, most of which offer technical education at advanced level as well as the upper secondary phase. Some 10% of undergraduate higher education is offered in FE colleges and, as analysis for the Education and Training Foundation has shown, is clearly focussed on local employment opportunities. Colleges already offer degrees, foundation degrees, HNC/D and professional qualifications. We need to invest more in what we have, rather than wheel out yet another wheeze.

Mick Fletcher is the founder of Policy Consortium

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