Amongst the duties of a Minister in addressing an audience at a conference is a task that can serve to raise subjects that would otherwise have been neglected, and can also serve to make the stage seem less of an elevating platform and more a big empty space with a single spotlight trained on them.

In a conference in May, following his speech to the assembled delegates of the Association of Learning Providers (ALP) at the Radisson SAS Hotel near Stansted, Mr. Bill Rammell MP, the Minister responsible for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, answered questions from the floor covering subjects of quality of provision, developments of programmes and the crucial question; who should foot the bill?

Quality and the Bill

One questions posed came from Matt Garvey, who is the Head of the Sales and Marketing Academy. He spoke of the efforts being made by small and indeed all sizes of training provider, particularly in the area of post 19 apprenticeships. It would seem to be a crucial part of the FE curriculum given the repeated warnings from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on the skills deficit amongst the existing workforce, and indeed the belief that the pace of change is such that the "job for life" is a thing for the history books.

With this in mind, Mr. Garvey raised his concerns regarding the future for these qualifications and the funding that supports them. With the re "“ ordering of funding priorities on the part of providers, some of them are not keeping these programmes running as they will be more expensive and complicated to support. Essentially, Mr. Garvey was concerned with the future of the post 19 apprenticeship.

On Employer Engagement

Mr. Rammell's response was at once understanding and sympathetic without yielding on the priorities that the Government feel must be addressed first. Essentially, as Mr. Rammell stated: "Quality does cost money." Whilst he welcomed the achievements of the many professionals working in FE at this level, he stressed that the limits of the public purse had been reached and that much of the funding for this area would need to come from somewhere else. The key words seem to be "demand led": and should the courses be demand led, the Government feels that other beneficiaries (such as employers and the learners themselves) can contribute to the funding.

On a similar subject, Mr. Russell from "Way to Work" in London, asked of the future for employer engagement and if the Minister had any further statements to make on this. He even suggested an inspection regime on the fulfilment of these requirements; which could prove difficult, as the Minister pointed out. Excessive regulation and bureaucracy are two of the problematic images that FE labours under in the fight to encourage businesses to trust the sector to provide the training needed, to be truly responsive to demand. Similarly, Mr. Rammell said that the beacon status would be reviewed according to the needs of employers, following a question on the subject from a delegate from Sheffield.

Essentially, it would appear that the message in the FE White Paper and in each speech since is being bullishly supported. Employer engagement and learners" paying part of the costs at least represents the future. Indeed, at another point in his responses, Mr. Rammell said that the provision of courses that learners would like to take or needed to take would bring in learners willing to pay. Essentially, they"ll bring the dough with them through the door, rather than it arriving in a Whitehall stamped envelope.

Jethro Marsh

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