Hard decisions ahead on the road to success

November 5, 1999

Excitement and uncertainty characterise the post-16 sector of education as the consultation period on the Learning to Succeed white paper ends.

Some decisions are now being made. The Learning and Skills Council is to be built on the base of the Further Education Funding Council in Coventry. Employers are to be reassured by 40 per cent representation on the council that education providers will not capture it. It now looks as if the Training and Enterprise Councils' money - the bit employers are most interested in - will come back into the contributing departments, mainly education and employment.

But there are many hard decisions to come in the vital but complicated business of sorting out post-compulsory education.

One may concern third-level qualifications - A levels, AS levels, GNVQs and competency tests in communication, numeracy and IT. The government has decided, in a triumph of hope over experience, to rely on schools and colleges to move voluntarily towards greater breadth of study. This looks set to result in the all too familiar game of after-you Cecil, after-you Claud, with schools saying they cannot broaden their sixth-form curricula without knowing how universities will react and universities reserving their right to pick the students they like best from those they are offered: a right regarded with the deepest envy by European universities required to enrol all qualified applicants.

If this situation is to be resolved, the government may

need to take on the vested interests (mainly in private schools but also in small sixth forms) of which they are so wary, and define and introduce a coherent set of qualifications with appropriate options to assess success at the end of third-level education.

It is the dual use of these qualifications as both a terminal exam and a selection tool for universities which has long bedevilled reform. Better to ignore the universities. What they may or may not do is their business. They are infinitely adaptable, as we have seen in the past couple of decades. And a coherent system that excused them the role of remedial teacher when, under political pressure, they admit under-qualified "non-

traditional" students, could go a long way to compensate for loss of narrowly specialised preparation.

The second set of thorny decisions surrounds the University for Industry. The slow development of this flagship initiative, which promises so many new opportunities for less qualified people, risks deadening enthusiasm for the lifelong learning project. What is it to be called? It cannot be marketed without

a name. Where are its already delayed development centres to be? How will its proposed network of hubs and learning centres mesh with the regional Learning and Skills Councils? Unless they do so we shall have a whole new raft of wasteful duplication.

A third set of tough questions is now popping up as a result of the government's determination to apply strict rules to the use of the university title - a rule that is itself causing the UfI embarrassment - and their unaccountable fudging of those rules for one further education college, Warrington. The result of this may have been inadvertently to strand colleges of higher education in limbo while further education colleges, pursuing the model of American community colleges, are able to create a new degree-awarding sector of their own.

Ministers who hoped the matter of university titles had been put to rest could have another think coming. And that think may strengthen the view, now voiced increasingly frequently around higher education, that it was a mistake to abolish the Council for National Academic Awards and return its royal charter to the palace. Some such independent institution may yet need to be reinvented.

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