"Learning to Succeed": Lib Dem response mixes praise and challenge

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The following is the text of an address by Phil Willis MP, Liberal Democrat spokesman on further education, to a recent meeting of the Association of Colleges (edited with permission):

The White Paper "Learning to Succeed" has rightly received plaudits from a wide section of the education and training establishment. Indeed, most commentators feel this is a step very much in the right direction.

The Liberal Democrats would not go so far as the AoC in their praise, but the White Paper certainly begins to address two central issues for us.

- The need for a unified structure to bring together vocational education and training into a coherent framework that can plan and help deliver the lifelong learning agenda, and

- The creation of a unified funding system that would provide a level playing field for resource distribution, accounting and audit.

The creation of the Learning and Skills Council combines both these functions, though we would have preferred there to be greater decentralisation with a direct link to the RDA’s.

The proposals will bring a greater coherence, clarity and transparency in Post-16 education and training provision. The abolition of the TECs is not before time. The ending of Schedule 2 and Non Schedule 2 funding, with the transfer of funding for community education to the new TSC, is a positive step despite the clarion calls of the Local Government Association, who fail to recognise that a significant number of LEAs have all but abandoned community education programmes.

Perhaps of greatest significance, the proposals herald a change of culture from competition to co-operation and collaboration. There is an implicit requirement throughout the White Paper that social, economic and educational exclusion can only be tackled by an inclusive education and training system. That I believe is good news for the FE sector, the Careers and Guidance Service, the business community and the trade unions. Above all it is good news for potential users of the service wherever they choose to access it.

However, may I now present a number of caveats that I feel should be addressed in the consultation period.

Over Centralisation

On closer examination the proposals in the White Paper create the potential for increasing bureaucracy and confusion unless changes are made.

The AoC is well aware that the Liberal Democrats would have preferred the Learning and Skills Council to be regionally based, co-terminous with the Regional Development Agencies. We do not know as yet whether the 40 or 50 sub-regional councils will be co-terminous with the RDA, local authorities or the 104 Learning Partnerships that are in their infancy. If not, then a potential for conflict exists.

The same goes for the new careers and guidance proposals. The White Paper makes a good case for career guidance to be available throughout a person’s life, not just as a 16-19year old. The White Paper should have adopted the Welsh model of an inclusive service for young people and adults. Instead it has opted for a two-tier approach, with Connexions dealing with the Youth and Careers service for 16–19 year olds, and a new adult service for the 19 plus cohort. Surprisingly, there are no proposals to alter the existing 66 contract areas for the existing careers service.

‘Joined up Government’ is an oft-used phrase but in the Lifelong Learning agenda it is absolutely crucial. To have sub-regional councils with little power and no resources is to create meaningless talking shops, and we have had plenty of those in the past. Worse still, it gives substance to those critics who claim the White Paper is more about central control than local delivery.

We will certainly be asking the DfEE to create a more cohesive framework when it presents its legislation in the autumn.

The role of the University for Industry

The second area of concern we have as a Party is the role of the UfI within the new proposals. The chapter on the UfI in the White Paper has been written from cyberspace, because it fails to connect with the rest of the government proposals.

Surely it was an omission not to have a UfI representative on the LSC committees? Surely it was a mistake to allow the UfI to set up a series of Consortia Hub Partnerships that bear no relationship to any of the organisations proposed in the White Paper? Surely it is a mistake to expect FE colleges to pay a 25% course levy to have their courses UfI branded? Surely it is a mistake not to extend Learning Direct to individual institutions? Surely it is a mistake for UfI to set up a completely separate needs analysis on which to base its marketing? Surely it is a mistake for UfI not to be closely involved with the LSC?

Now I am one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the UfI and believe that it has the potential to be even more successful than the Open University. But its true potential lies in working as a close partner with all involved in Lifelong Learning, and there are already signs that government is too suspicious of existing providers to allow that.

The Government appears to view existing providers with almost the same suspicion as the Tories did. Why else would we have the continuous statements about consumer control, top down planning, inspection by Mr Woodhead and ever increasing accountability?

Why the fear of tackling head-on the school 6th form agenda and the 14 – 19 curriculum? Why was post-16 funding in schools not put on the same basis as that for FE? And why was the Higher Education sector excluded from the White Paper almost in its entirety?

Is this a case of allowing Cinderella to go to the Ball but still be back for midnight?

Which leads me nicely to two final issues that are not included with the White Paper, namely student support, and lecturers’ professional development.

Frank Coffield’s recent study for the Economic and Social Research Council found that the principal reason for a lack of take up of existing provision was a lack of time or a lack of money. Time, for existing staff who work in the 94% of small businesses in Britain, is a huge issue for all of us. Despite the fact that most current research clearly demonstrates a positive benefit for both business and the individual, less than 1 in 3 such businesses invest in training. On this issue the White Paper is silent – save the belief that the UfI will be able to deliver. The Sunderland University pilot clearly failed in that direction and I believe the ball is firmly in the AoC’s court again.

Student financial support remains a big question for any Government. But with an extra £1.4b of tax revenue coming into the Treasury in July of this year alone surely the Government could increase Individual Learning Accounts from the derisory £150. It could double access funds, and commit itself to expanding Education Maintenance Allowances and at last making income-contingent loans available for all full time and part time FE students over the age of 19.

.... Could I return to the issue of staff? I said on the floor of the House, in responding to the White Paper, that this was a missed opportunity to put our staff at the heart of the learning agenda. I personally dislike the view of Government – and, I have to say, some college principals – that you drive up standards by inspection, audit and job insecurity. You don’t. It is incomprehensible to me that we should have a White Paper dedicated to urging a nation to invest in its people and not make that a duty of the providers themselves.

Delegates, the White Paper is a tremendous beginning but it will need you and your colleagues to make it a reality and a success.

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