Select Committee on Education and Skills Fourth Report


Further education has often been left to pick up the pieces of failure in other parts of the education system, and has been beset by a lack of a coherent strategic direction and appropriate oversight at the national level. We therefore welcome the Government's recent statements on the importance of further education to the UK economy and society—and the significant attention it is currently giving this area.

In 2004, the Government commissioned Sir Andrew Foster to conduct an independent review of the role of further education—colleges in particular. Ministers have now signalled acceptance in large part of Foster's findings. Government proposals, following Foster, in the areas of driving up quality, proposals to deal with poor performance in colleges and other providers, rationalisation of inspection and oversight, and a closer focus on the learner are on the right path, although our evidence suggests the implications have not always been fully worked through and sometimes, that the changes suggested may not be radical enough. While we also broadly concur with the Government that root-and-branch structural reform may not be a productive way forward for further education in the short- to medium-term, we see risks as well as opportunities in the incremental approach that he advocated, and which the Government since appears to have largely accepted as the way forward. To succeed, such a strategy will need clear and consistent direction, a long-term commitment, and an even higher profile from the Government, the DfES and the LSC than it currently has. Additionally, we do not think that proposals to improve the administration of the functioning of the DfES and the LSC, with regard to further education, go far enough.

There is compelling evidence that certain types of adult learning are being inadvertently put at risk by current funding priorities—there is a real possibility that this will generate problems in the future as the economy becomes increasingly reliant on older workers. Courses, once lost, are difficult to replace and the hard-won confidence of some returning learners, difficult to sustain. This issue has not been adequately addressed in the recent FE White Paper: the Government and the LSC need to re-examine funding for adult learning —in the context of a wider debate about funding for further education—as a matter of urgency.

The present planning and funding mechanisms for skills training appear incoherent, over-complex, burdensome, and often act as a barrier to further education's development rather than a support to it. Although some reorganisation is in train, we do not have full confidence that the intended outcome—a simplified and proportionate overarching structure for further education—will be achieved. While our inquiry has not explored the "skills superstructure" in detail, we make some preliminary comments about it here, and we also intend to review in more depth this wider picture in the coming months; we urge the Government to do the same. A more coherent planning and funding machinery is essential to the overall development of further education.

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