Knights of a not-so-rounded table

August 23, 1996

In the fourth of our open letters to the Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education, Colin Flint (left) argues that the 'Almighty' MrFixit Sir Ron needs a more radical committee for post-school education. He declares that a new vision, new models of what a progressive, powerful nation needs for its post-compulsoryeducation system, are needed. But perhaps, Mr Flint asserts, the governing powers in Britainare just not prepared to pay for what the rest of Europe and beyond regard as so important.

Dear Ron, I'm sure you must be amused occasionally by some of the descriptions given to you - "the nearest British education has to the Almighty": "a more cost-effective alternative to the DFEE": "Mr Fixit". You wear the implied responsibilities lightly, but take them very seriously. And we need a fixer, because the system is, surely, broke. (Pun intended).

Of all of the big jobs you've done and are doing I wonder which seemed easiest? My guess is the National Curriculum, because the solutions were fairly clear: some judicious pruning of the more over-blown flights of Mr Baker's fancy (and a lot of common sense). The 16-19 review must have been tougher, because the issues were and are more intractable, the problems less well understood. Mind you, I think that you, or somebody else, will have to go back and do it again, because your proposals won't solve the underlying and very serious failings of our present arrangements. Some of what you have recommended will make the task you are now undertaking more difficult - I'll try to explain why a little later.

In any event, Dearing 3 is another toughie. It doesn't look to me as though you've picked, or had picked for you, the most radical of committees to help. A lot of knights, certainly, but don't knights get a bit like judges, and need to be reminded what an NVQ or disadvantaged adult might be? There are not many round your table with any direct experience of further education, which, in the circumstances, is careless.

I think we need radical changes, both in 16-19 qualifications and in higher education. I think we need a new vision, new models, of what the post-compulsory system of a major nation in the 21st century ought to be seeking to do. And I don't envy you that, because we're not good at radical, and we're starting from behind, and there will be the most tremendous resistance.

It ought to be significant that you are beginning your work in the European Year of Lifelong Learning, but we have not heard much about it since Mrs Shephard published the glossy. This is partly because the Government is not prepared to pay for it, believing that that is up to individuals and employers - but you know, and I know, that we don't have that kind of culture. We both know too that other countries have persuaded their citizens that education and training are worth having and are worth paying for to a much greater extent than now, and unless we do the same we will see levels both of provision and of attainment falling.

As the glossy said, "Lifetime Learning is not just about the economy and competitiveness. It is also crucial to our national culture and quality of life": which is presumably why they've sent for you again, and you, good-natured chap that you surely must be, are going to make it all better.

If you want to make it better, it won't be by tinkering, smoothing the edges. We need to rethink our purposes, and we need a system of post-compulsory learning, and qualifications, that is accessible to and attractive to the mass, not the elite. It needs to appeal to those who have been failed by our present system. It needs to be on the "doorstep": the vast majority of those who are non-participants won't ever want to go away to university, and couldn't afford to; it needs to recognise that there are already more adult students in the present system than there are school-leavers, and that this is not a temporary phenomenon. It will need to look after students better than most universities have regarded as necessary in the past, and many will have to pay more attention to teaching. The article in The THES on July 26 - "Couldn't teach a dog to sit" - won't have passed you by.

The British mind-set is still that universities are for selected 18-year-olds and that they need to live away from home. It's a rite-of-passage model, defined by location, and mode of study, and level of knowledge, and qualification. At bottom its assumptions are necessarily elitist; because its intentions and its design were avowedly for the minority, not the mass. There is also a belief that more, by definition, means worse.

What a new system has to set out to achieve is to demonstrate that more is not worse: it is different and, in a very real and important sense, it is better. Better because the country will fail unless it achieves significantly higher levels of participation and much higher levels of knowledge and skill among the majority of the young, and among much higher proportions of the older population. It is the familiar - and I think unchallenged - argument for the crucial importance of investment in a well-qualified workforce if we are to maintain, and improve, international competitiveness. It's a very simple formulation, and it has been obvious for years, and we've been failing to deal with it. And this, Sir Ron, is where the importance of further education lies. It's also where your review of 16-19 qualifications missed the opportunity to make the sufficiently radical changes to begin the cultural transformation.

Further education is good at non-traditional students. It grew up with them, for them, and has put great effort into reaching them. Good colleges have always done so, not just since Further Education Funding Council sought to provide some incentives. It has created its own "access pyramid" - helping students up through different levels of study all at the same institution, encouraging and enabling their progression. It grows its own higher education students, ones who would never have been part of the higher education system otherwise. It changes people's lives. When Willie Russell accepted his further education Alumni Gold Award in the House of Commons recently - right after Betty Boothroyd - he went further: he said further education had saved his.

Futher education has invested heavily in core skills, because it believes in them and has observed their necessity, and of course it influenced their development and role in vocational courses. It has always had strong links with industry, and with the local economy, because that was usually its origin. It provides a more applied curriculum, and has developed many of the vocational degrees and higher diplomas that are now part of the higher education scene. It goes into its communities; seeks out new students in outreach centres; offers them t'ai chi and basic English and line dancing, and then interests them in word-processing, and child-care, and literature.

It also delivers higher education. Some colleges are as much concerned with higher education as with further education - they ought to be represented on your committee - and many have strong partnerships with HE institutions. At Solihull we work with six universities, we are an associate college of two, and have more than 1,200 students a year on higher education programmes. Our students do as well as those in higher education institutions, and sometimes, where they can make comparisons, value as higher. The further education colleges are indisputably part of what you are setting out to review. While a proportion of our growth since incorporation has been in such provision, our grasp on continued growth of any kind is looking increasingly tenuous, for the same reasons that increase in our numbers in higher education was brought up short. You'll have read the leaked memo from within the Treasury a few weeks ago: "Consideration is currently being given to reducing state support for post-16 education on the grounds that rising demand is unaffordable, and private returns to individuals and their employees exceed social returns. To change the balance of funding between taxpayer and other beneficiaries and to inject more market mechanisms into the delivery of training and education, funding institutions may be replaced by financing individuals with vouchers, grants, loans and employer contributions."

Kenneth Clarke dismissed all this as merely the work of a few youthful backroom zealots. Of course we will have to accept that people will need to pay more for higher education, and for some further education too: you can't fund a mass post-compulsory system the same way that you fund a selective one, and if the current government had had the guts to do it, we'd have had a working system of loans and graduate tax long before now.

But you can't deliver what Britain needs through the relentless march of the market. Economic efficiency and social justice go hand in hand, and both are part of our business. Your review of 16-19 qualifications might have served both better, though there were good things in it like the entry level qualifications, the key skills emphasis, and national diploma. But while one can see why you were attracted by the idea of merging National Council for Vocational Qualifications and School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, it is not a good idea. Further education works well with schools generally, but its future is as part of a coherent post-compulsory system, not tied to and subsumed within a monolithic and schools-focused curriculum and assessment authority. Why not a National Tertiary Qualifications body, where emphasis of 16-19 curriculum and qualifications would be at point-of-entry into higher levels of education and into work, rather than the culmination of an educational experience? The development of (G)NVQs at levels 4 and 5 would be overseen here, and the work of the lead bodies co-ordinated.

Similarly, your three pathways are doomed, just as the 1944 tripartite system failed. I know your hands were tied, and you were not allowed even to question the primacy of A levels, but there might have been just a wistful glance in the direction of a properly unified, credit-based system. A levels are the biggest single obstacle to coherence and greater success in post-16 qualifications, and they'll get in the way of your present review as well. Renaming GNVQ is tinkering, and does not change anything. University gate-keepers, often a law unto themselves, will go on trusting A level grades even when they do not trust the gradings of their own university examination, and too many 16-year-olds will go on under-achieving at 18 because they've spent two years doing the wrong things. We go on exalting the so-called academic over applied knowledge against all logic and against self-interest.

Incorporation, and growth, have let the genie out of the bottle. New models are being developed, some out of educational philosophy and conviction, others out of desperation: there are at least HE/FE mergers under discussion or already completed in England, (every one of them involving a "new" university. That's new "new" of course.) The shape of the system is certain to go on changing, perhaps reflecting new forms of participation and active citizenship, even community power. We need to start seeing universities and colleges as one coherent but highly diverse post-compulsory network, a single phase with distinctive features, inter-dependent, collectively responsible for its own assessment and qualification systems. You can encompass world-class research institutions and a world-class mass tertiary education structure within that.

Good luck, Ron. How about an inquiry into the effects of class in British education next?

Colin Flint is Principal of Solihull College and received the OBE earlier this year.

Next week's open letter to the Dearing inquiry will be from Patrick Coldstream, recently retired as director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education.

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