Blunkett re-shuffles the pack

In the great battle for control of the post 16 education and training budget, the TECs have lost and the Further Education Funding Council and Employment Service have won. At the Unemployment Unit & Youthaid, we spent a decade attacking TECs, so we shall not lament their passing.

Beware. TECs may not be completely gone. The smarter ones might metamorphose into Local Learning and Skills Councils. This point was not missed when the great and good of the TECs gathered in early July in Birmingham for their annual beanfeast. In sombre mood, they heard Blunkett’s re-assurance that "that there will be a vital role for the business community to play" on the Local Councils. And there will be £1 million of new money for TECs "to pave the way for successful transition". Meanwhile, the DTI is almost inviting TECs to bid for the new Small Business Service. So, with a bit of geographical re-ordering, many TECs could end up doing just what they always fancied doing - without the burden of running a clutch of pesky welfare schemes.

However, the "Learning to Succeed" White Paper is more than just a re-shuffling of the infrastructure. It represents a serious attempt to transform the economy and the life chances of individuals - particularly those at the bottom end of the labour market.

Output per worker in the UK lags behind the US by almost 40% and behind France and Germany by around 20%. Although Britain does OK at degree level, other countries outstrip us at the crucial intermediate and technician levels. For individuals too, qualifications are vital. On average, wage levels for those skilled to S/NVQ3 are 25% higher and the chances of being employed are 50% higher than for people with no qualifications.

As importantly, skills are the key to unlocking the exclusion from work that almost a quarter of the population experiences. Firstly, by tackling problems early within the education system; secondly by boosting the employability of individuals once they are in work.

The present post-16 system is not achieving these economic and social goals. As the White Paper says, too many people drop out at 16 and too little support and guidance is offered to young people as they face the most critical career decisions of their lives. The range and quality of opportunities available to those who stay on - or proceed to work based training - are often insufficient. Meanwhile, for adults, there are barriers to education and training and similar problems of insufficient information, advice and opportunity.

The White Paper proposes two main improvements. Firstly a rational structure in which Government funds can be spent, with artificial boundaries removed between the college-based and work-based routes to acquire skills - or so we hope. Secondly, new partnerships forged at national and local levels between all the major players. This should roll back the corrosive effects of a competitive, quasi-market culture of recent years. In its place should be a "learning culture" between the Government, individuals, employers, providers and communities - in which all parties share agreed goals and work towards them as partners.

In the meantime however, the transition from old to new will take time and the Government has set an implementation timetable running through to April 2001. Why the slow pace? Legislation is needed for a start. But there is a feeling that fragile infrastructure needs to be handled with care. That will be especially true of the transfer of Work Based Learning for Adults (WBLA) from TECs to the Employment Service.

Incidentally, we take a small bit of credit for this. The Unit & Youthaid runs the "TEN" network of training providers and our ‘TEC Review’ submission was unique in making the transfer recommendation. Now we have a responsibility to help providers and the ES manage this major change - and naturally we share the apprehensions of many WBLA providers.

But slowness can also lead to collapse. Despite their many strategic failings, TECs recruited an able and skilled workforce. This "people asset" needs to be nurtured. Otherwise a core group of managers and specialists will be lost - probably to the private sector - and the final full-year of TEC contracts will be in the hands of collapsing organisations.

Lastly, we are delighted to see the Government accept the case for changing the "16" hour rule. This has taken a campaign of more than 10 years to achieve - although we are still not quite there. Sensible and permissive rules should now be designed to help unemployed people train or study (full-time or part-time) not least when they are using courses financed by the European Social Fund. Otherwise, an important skilling route will still be denied to people who face the most serious barriers - not least those young adults from black and ethnic minority communities who return to the education system years after that system failed them.

The White Paper is brimful of hope for young and adult learners. But designing policy is easy. Implementing it is the tough part.