Employers, further colleges and all involved in skills and qualifications owe a debt of gratitude to Professor Alison Wolf’s “Review of Vocational Education” for enabling Further Education to “come out”. It’s now OK and acceptable to write and speak openly on skills and their delivery. Further Education is coming out.

Professor Wolf has been writing on competence assessments and targets for more than 20 years. She must feel that her time has finally arrived, especially with the Institute of Directors and many others now saying the same thing.

Events have moved quickly. After the Leitch Skills Review in 2006, Alison Wolf was almost a lone voice in her 2007 ‘Round and Round the Houses’ article in the ‘Local Economy’:

“The Leitch Review is not merely illogical and wrong-headed: it is also puzzling. It states, at the start, that we cannot predict the future with accuracy, and then, a few pages later, states that ‘This report recommends the optimal level of skills in the economy.’ It argues that wages reflect productivity, and then recommends that government spending be directed largely to paying for qualifications of a type which do not seem to be increasing productivity at all”.

Her ‘Adult Approach to Further Education’ in November 2009, from which there are more quotations below, was equally incisive:

“To anyone outside, this system is completely opaque. (This is one reason why journalists never write about it.) Employers have quite consciously given up trying to understand what is going on.”

In its flyer for her Report, the Institute of Economic Affairs said:

“In the UK, further education is a bastion of Soviet central planning that has wholly avoided the market-based reforms that have been adopted in other parts of the state sector. In terms of total spending, further education is important, but hitherto – perhaps because of its complexity – there has been little serious policy analysis of the sector.”

Last month, in ‘Reforming the Skills System: Lessons Learned the Hard Way’ the Institute of Directors and CFE Research and Consultancy joined the chorus – the same message but a different voice:

“Most of the policy initiatives of this period can most easily be understood as an attempt to bring the might of a growing State to bear in coaxing and pressing employers to do their bit to close the distance in the great bar chart race. With a pot of money expanding each year; a proliferation of new public bodies; a welter of papers; and the occasional new regulation, amidst threats of more, governments focused relentlessly on increasing the number of qualifications”

In May, in its “synthesis of findings to date”  ‘A Dynamic Nucleus: Colleges at the Heart of Local Communities’,  the Independent Commission on Colleges in their Communities agreed with this general thrust:

“Colleges receive the vast majority of their funding from central government agencies and are therefore highly dependent on the funding criteria set by these agencies. However, criteria from funding bodies do not always reflect conditions in local labour markets or the demand from local individuals or employers”.

So, thanks to Alison Wolf, it’s now OK to talk openly about the whole system of skills delivery

Empire Building

The trajectory of the British Empire stretches from taking possession of Newfoundland in 1583 to Suez in 1956. Though the Learning and Skills Council empire lasted only from 1992 till 2009, its colonial mission showed no less fervour. Formed in 1992, the Further Education Funding Council soon took European Social Fund “in house”. Under its successor the Learning and Skills Council, ESF became another colony. Colleges were drilled into bidding into LSC designed priorities and targets, with each bidding round prefaced by another ‘launch’ conference.

Colleges methodically shoe horned provision into each new LSC strategic hamlet, moving from bidding to actual contracts along the LSC’s version of own the Silk Route. Alison Wolf summed up the overall approach in her ‘Adult Approach to Further Education’:

“As a proportion of funds disbursed, the Learning and Skills Council (soon to be replaced) spends approximately ten times as much on administration as does the Higher Education Funding Council. This is not because LSC staff are incompetent but because of government departments’ involvement in the smallest, day-by-day decisions made by the LSC, with the details of accounting and audit procedures travelling up to the desk of the Secretary of State himself”.

In 2002, Gordon Brown promoted Employer Training Pilots as a way through the maze. Despite initial promise of assessment and guidance for less skilled employees at Level 2, in true LSC imperial style, these soon became the National Employer Training Programme and ‘Train to Gain’. Another colony!

‘An Adult Approach to Further Education’ showed that Level 2 qualifications have been over rated:

“Within the LSC budget, a growing proportion – scheduled to exceed £1 billion in 2008/09 – is directed to the Train to Gain programme, which, it was argued above, is unjustifiable in principle, and failing to produce any useful results”

Professor Wolf is especially incisive on qualification equivalence:

“But only in the looking-glass world of modern English education policy would anyone really claim that a ‘full Level 2’ in Customer Care, awarded at the workplace on the basis of fifteen hours’ contact time, was ‘equivalent’ to, say, A to C passes in English, Maths, Chemistry, French and History at GCSE”

She writes similarly in her March 2011 ‘Review of Vocational Training’:

“The staple offer for between a quarter and a third of the post-16 cohort is a diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little to no labour market value. Among 16 to 19 year olds, the Review estimates that at least 350,000 get little to no benefit from the post-16 education system”.

This conclusion makes employer bodies such as the Engineering Employers’ Federation and what they said in 2006 in “Learning to Change: Why the UK Skills System Must do Better ” sound almost timid:  

“…The emphasis by DfES on targeting those at the lower end of the skills spectrum may in fact be distorting the supply of provision as the LSC aims to fulfil targets on learner numbers within key groups. This top-down approach to planning and funding does not ensure a match between training supply and demand”

A Pathway out of Complexity?

In “Reforming the Skills System” the Institute of Directors is right to focus on continuing complexity of the skills system:  

“Since 1997 we have had the National Skills Task Force, then a review by the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit, and then the Leitch Review. Along the way, further reviews have looked at more specific questions. The reviews always start on the premise that part of the problem is excessive institutional complexity. But then, through a combination of novelty – every review needs its eye-catching initiative – and instability – one review after another – they become one of the main sources of that complexity.” 

Against a background where these criticisms have now become familiar, it has almost been forgotten that the Coalition Government consulted on a “Simplified Further Education and Skills Funding System and Methodology” in July 2010:

“Allocating Funds. 52. The purpose of setting an allocation is to assign a funding envelope which colleges and training organisations can use to respond to demand.  It will be for the college  or training organisation to determine what they can deliver for the money in response to local need and demand through their business plans”. 

But so far, in its Response to Professor Wolf and others the Government has only said:

“As part of this the funding for 16-19 education needs to be radically changed to remove perverse incentives for colleges to accumulate qualifications rather than provide sensible, balanced and broad programmes of study.

“We have announced that we are reviewing the 16-19 funding formula. This review will consider how we can move from a formula based on funding qualifications to one based on funding learners. The review will consider value for money and what weightings may be needed to reflect the content-related cost of courses and for particular groups of high-need young people”.

In its “Reforming the Skills System”, the Institute of Director’s remedy is more simple and straightforward:  

“For that reason, in those circumstances where public funding is appropriate, we should incentivise and subsidise the customers of learning – employers and employees – not those providing it.

“To facilitate that process, all funding for training related to mainstream workforce development should – by the end of the Parliament – be rerouted so that it flows through demand-side mechanisms”

There are clearly changes to come. In the OFQUAL and Qualifications Design section of the Government’s Response to the Wolf Report, there is a clear intention to shake up qualification design and delivery:

“Recommendation 24: DfE and BIS should discuss and consult on the appropriate future and role of National Occupational Standards in education and training for young people, and on whether and how both national employer bodies – including but not only SSCs – and local employers should contribute to qualification design”

Though redundancies are to be regretted, the first Annual Report 2010-2011 of the Skills Funding Agency shows something of the future, in announcing that its headcount will be reduced by 40%.

Employers as Collective Bargainers for Qualifications

This shift of emphasis to funding for individual learners and employer led skills delivery is long overdue. The main issue now is that in many areas there is little local bargaining mechanism for local employers to come together to force the pace.

There are some Local Enterprise Partnerships, such as the Black Country in the West Midlands, whose chair has a longstanding interest and record in high standards of training. There are some Sector Skills Councils, especially SEMTA, with sufficient levels of employer participation which might become the focus for employer bargaining.

Employer bodies such as the Engineering Employers with their strong regional bases, are already training deliverers, including training centres.

University Technical Colleges, funded under the Academies Programme and promoted by the Baker Dearing Foundation are another example.

FE Colleges have their own Governing bodies and employer networks. They work with Chambers of Commerce and other employer organisations. In 2009, the CBI/LSIS “Reaching Further” Report on employer-FE College partnership has 13 local examples of employer engagement.

Later specialisation as recommended by Wolf is being development by the English Baccalaureate and hopefully through the expansion of apprenticeships. Much more will need to come at a local level.

Another trigger will be the spread of new income-contingent loans for some courses and students in the FE sector. The Government is also looking at anomalies such as the distinctions between “prescribed” and “non-prescribed” HE.

Perhaps the best way of concluding is from the National Audit Office Report of 2005 on “Employers’ Perspectives on Improving Skills” with these four themes: :

i) employers want a simple way of getting advice on the best skills training for their staff
ii)employers want training that meets their business needs 
iii)employers want incentives to train their staff more; and 
iv)employers want to influence skills training without getting weighed down by bureaucracy
All this has a very clear ring and I want to help in work towards achieving it.