Merger of the education and employment is long overdue, says matchmaker Geoffrey Holland ... but there are doubters
It was not a spur of the moment decision to bring together the former Department for Education and major parts of the former Employment Department in a new Department for Education and Employment. Ever since it became increasingly clear that in the modern world brawn had given way to brain and that investment in people of all ages was the key to success, many have urged this course. Inside Whitehall, too, they were prepared. The pros and cons and the consequences had, as always, been carefully analysed.
All of those who have been party to the proposal have known that there was much more to it than simply words on paper. The DFE and ED have been two quite different departments - in style, in experience, in skills and in structures.
The DFE has been a small department - some 2,000 staff. The great majority have been in Sanctuary Buildings in London. The eyes and ears they once had in Her Majesty's Inspectors left when OFSTED was formed. That move and the creation of quango after quango to distance operational decisions from the core had left DFE as an administrative and policy-making Head Office of quality but deprived of roots and branches, able to pass responsibility for individual decisions to others, a department at home with legislation, with the minutiae of local government finance, with knowledge of processes, its time largely consumed by matters affecting schools and schools' policy and its concerns English rather than European and social rather than economic.
The ED is in sharp contrast. The unexpected decision to transfer the Employment Service to the new department means that some 40,000 staff from ED will outnumber those in DFE by 20 to 1. Moreover, there could hardly be a sharper contrast so far as organisational structures are concerned. True, the Employment Department has devolved many arm's-length decisions on vocational education and training to the Training and Enterprise Councils, but it has maintained a strong regional structure, integrated with the new regional government offices, possessing direct-spend budgets of considerable size and influence. And in the Job Centres of the Employment Service the new department now has more than 1,000 local outlets as information and counselling points.
There are other contrasts too. DFE has, latterly, undertaken hardly any research and development or experimentation of its own. By contrast the ED has been noteworthy for innovation, enterprise, novelty and flexibility. It has taken risks and has been noted for speed of decision making and operation. Not least, where the DFE has been concerned for processes and their quality, ED has been concerned with outcomes, numerical targets and timetables for their achievement.
So it will be a major task to integrate the two in a new department. And unless the two are integrated, the change is not worth making. Indeed, unless there is integration, there are real risks - that employers will walk away if academics and educationists take over; that adults will get even less attention as ministers are distracted by issues in schools; and that unemployed people will be forgotten when there is a real danger of an underclass forming in many of our inner cities.
None of these things need happen and all must work to ensure they do not. By the end of the summer we must have a new integrated strategy evolved with all the major partners and a quite new organisational structure coming into place charged with implementing a programme to take us into the next century.
The major features of that programme are surely clear:
* The long overdue integration of technical, vocational and academic programmes and qualifications, with the creation of a new body built from the Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
* A comprehensive policy for 14-plus education with a coherent funding policy which does not discriminate between full-time and part-time education, the education and the work-based routes.
* An integrated approach to financial support of students post-16, treating, in particular, those in FE and those in HE alike, with some form of student tax repayable over a lifetime of earning.
* A new integrated all-age policy for special education and training needs (ED brings its responsibilities for disabled people preparing for or at work).
* A releasing of the pent-up demand for further and higher education, with the ceiling lifted on student numbers as the new financial support systems for students are introduced.
* A credible quality-assurance system for both education and training and for all providers, whether public or private sector.
* An integration of the powerhouse of our education and training system with economic regeneration, community by community, region by region.
Expect some institutional changes too. ln addition to the replacement of both SCAA and NCVQ, I shall be expecting the creation of Education and Training Councils at local level to replace the Training and Enterprise Councils (and, incidentally, weed out ineffective and underperforming TECs). Such councils could even call into question the future of local education authorities. I would also expect a long hard look to be taken at the continuing necessity for the FE Funding Council and Funding Agency for Schools - there are powerful regional and local offices in the new structure and there can be integrated planning through them for local provision for all stages of learning up to the threshold of higher education. It will be interesting to see whether thoughts turn to creating a new, integrated quality-assurance system from OFSTED, the quality inspectorate of the FE funding council.
The goal is, after all, inclusion rather than exclusion, the targeting of resources to where they are most needed, doing away with barriers to opportunities or progression, and releasing the full potential of the individual through lifetime opportunities for learning. And, since many of us may be expecting to pay at the time or over time for the programme we follow, all of us have a right to assured quality and a customer achievement guarantee.
It is all better late than never. Gillian Shephard has probably until the end of the summer to formulate and publish a strategy that will convince the country that the vision is there and to show that her department understands the responsibilities placed upon it and is ready for the task. If she can demonstrate both, then it will be important that politicians from other parties do nothing to suggest the future of the new department may be uncertain, whatever the policies they would want that department to pursue.
Geoffrey Holland is former permanent secretary of the departments of education and employment. He is now vice chancellor of the University of Exeter.