How the vision just melted away
Under Tony Blair’s premiership, policies for further education have been characterised by his impatience with the long game.
New Labour came to power with a firm pledge of renewal and a wealth of substantial research evidence to back the creation of a genuinely universal lifelong learning system. David Blunkett, Blair’s first Secretary of State for Education, set about laying a firm foundation.
Everyone accepted that change would not come overnight. Ten years were needed for this revolution.
Further evidence emerged - were it necessary - from international bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The UK needed sustained development of further education and training, managed by and for the community, to meet local and national needs.
Instead of 10 years, however, lifelong learning initiatives had barely two before they were picked to pieces.
Visionary policies for sustained and shared investment in education and training by the state, industry and individual were reduced to farce.
Ill-fated and over-spent Individual Learning Accounts were riddled with accusations of fraud and reined in by the Treasury.
The grand plan for a University for Industry - to do for training what the Open University did for adult education - degenerated into a quick-fix outfit: Learndirect. A monster of a funding body was created in the Learning and Skills Council. As bureaucracy and red tape mushroomed under the LSC, colleges were in virtual revolt until ministers promised to slash both the council and paperwork.
In the Blairite rallying cry “Education, education, education”, colleges and other FE interests ranked last. Money, when it arrived, came too late to match the vision or the promises. Ministers failed to act quickly enough over the need for an alternative for the defunct industry-training levy.
They failed to tackle early enough some of the problems of college incorporation and unfettered market competition. Some of the biggest scandals and disasters around colleges such as Halton and Bilston happened not under the Tories - who created the corporate college sector - but under Blair’s administration.
As in so many parts of Blair’s public domain, vision and evidence-based policies were cast aside in FE. The reputation of colleges suffered both from the failure of Blair to tackle the root causes of problems or to raise the profile in a way politicians could and should have done. And here lies the deepest of problems. Blair’s wish to make the public services - schools and hospitals - loved and used by the middle classes did not have FE in its scope. What mattered to him were elite sixth form colleges, school sixth forms and elements of a fast track to higher education. General FE colleges are geared to the working classes, under-achievers and second chancers.
Recent years have been marked by a succession of reviews of red tape, college reputation, national skills shortages and the need for broader investment by big guns such as Sir George Sweeney, Sir Andrew Foster and Lord Leitch. But the work-based, skills-driven policies that are now reshaping the sector along utilitarian lines are not based on solid evidence or sound research. They are based on a cherry picking of reviews to suit ministerial wishes.
This is not to say there has been no progress for FE in Blair’s 10 years.
There has. The FE student population doubled to almost 6 million, levels of achievement rose, industry and education work more closely than they ever have and industrial relations are better than they ever were under the Tories.
But where is the excitement, the vision, the expectation that was cause for so much optimism when Tony Blair stepped into 10 Downing Street?