Cash for students key to success of welcome reforms

July 2, 1999

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Fax 0171 782 3300 Tel 0171 782 3000 Email The tangled mess that is post-16 education and training has been crying out for rationalisation for decades. The government's determination to tackle it is welcome. So is the concreteness of the proposals in its white paper Learning to Succeed - in contrast to the well-meaning waffle of last year's Learning Age consultative documents. The further education sector is crucial, as the white paper says, both to helping individuals to succeed and to feeding the economy with useful workers.

Also welcome is the government's determination to bring in reforms in the next two years. This means within the scope of the present comprehensive spending settlement and before the next election. The consultation period launched by the white paper's publication will be fraught enough without the whole matter becoming an electoral football.

The issue likely to be most fiercely contested (now that the government has backed off confrontation over school sixth forms) is the emphasis on consumer control. Since students are hard to represent, this is likely to mean in practice employers and nominated "community representatives". Contempt for the providers of education is a disease new Labour seems to have caught from its Conservative predecessors. While employers' needs are important, their involvement in running training and enterprise councils (now to be subsumed into the new Learning and Skills Council) and college governing boards has been disappointing.

If the new structure is to work well, providers must be involved as more than recipients of consumer demands. Success will depend on the enthusiastic involvement of people who work in colleges and universities - and universities have an important contribution to make if college courses are really to open up opportunities. Teachers are likely to be among the best sources of innovative ideas and are at least as likely to be in tune with students' aspirations, particularly as increasing numbers of people aim to use their skills to run their own businesses rather than to sign on with existing companies.

In developing the white paper reforms, the government would be wise to put rather more stress on the partnership aspects of the proposals than on the somewhat punitive-sounding requirements for consumer control, top-down planning and inspection and accountability regimes designed to "drive up standards".

Reorganising funding, planning and monitoring arrangements for post-16 education is necessary but will not be sufficient to achieve the government's aims. Nor will charging the Learning and Skills Council and others with "driving up demand". The arrangements for financial support for students are at least as important. As Frank Coffield's study for the Economic and Social Research Council shows (page 3), take-up of lifelong learning is low because people do not have the time or money to undertake it. Here the white paper is virtually silent, apart from passing reference to people having access "to support in the form of good advice and guidance and, where appropriate, financial help" and the hope that individual learning accounts will take off.

The best news in this respect this week comes not from the white paper but rather from the remit of the committee set up to review student support in Scotland (page 10). At least in one part of Britain, support for students - full and part-time, in further and in higher education - is to be reviewed as a whole. Andrew Cubie's committee is due to report by the end of the year. Perhaps it will come up with a practical and equitable blueprint that can be applied south of the border also.

For without adequate financial support for poorer students wherever and whenever they study, all talk of opening opportunities, encouraging access and sweeping virtually everyone into lifelong learning will be so much hot air.

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