In 1997, the incoming Labour government made education one of its main priorities and pledged to “get 250,000 young unemployed off benefit and into work”.
In 1999 it announced major changes to post-16 learning in its streamlining white paper ‘Learning to succeed’. This heralded the 2001 launch (via the Learning and Skills Act of 2000) of one national body – the Learning and Skills Council for England (LSC) – to cover all areas of non-HE, post-16 education and training, plus 50 local learning and skills councils, and replace the now abolished Further Education Funding Council and TECs.
The new bodies were tasked to encourage learning among post-16 teenagers and adults, tailor FE provision more to local needs and boost national economic performance – and, of course, standards.
Various LSC initiatives based on performance-based (16-19s) and employer-based (adult learning) funding models were launched to raise standards by introducing choice and competition into the sector in the years leading up to the recession.
For the 16-19 sector there were the popular Individual Learning Accounts scheme (2000-2001), short-lived because of the outbreak of fraud by rogue providers.
The LSC also set up three-year funding agreements linked to performance, backed by strategic area reviews (introduced in 2003) to ensure providers responded to the needs of learners, employers and the community.
This was followed by a framework of excellence (2006), created to assess providers and give them a quality rating – individual ratings earned rewards or penalties, including more or less Ofsted inspections and greater or reduced funding and autonomy.
(Ironically, when the LSC was ready to go nationwide with the scheme in 2008, the council’s future was under scrutiny and a change in policy saw its abolition in March 2010.)
Also in 2006, the government-funded Train to Gain scheme (launched in 2002) went national, providing adult learners with free, work-based training. But often the skills the government was promoting – and thus the funding available to providers - did not match the needs of local employers and communities.
The same year the Leitch Review recommended that funding should be channelled through employer-led schemes rather than continue along the performance-led route.
Despite certain success in incentive schemes, the government concluded the same year that the FE sector was too complex to succeed in incentivising the market.
Adult learning courses came under the spotlight in 2007 following The Learning Age green paper and Baroness Helena Kennedy’s report in 2007 on widening participation, though the recession and later Coalition cuts made large inroads into this area of provision.
2009 saw the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Act allow for the dissolution of the LSC early in 2010, to be replaced by the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) - a quango under the Department for Education responsible for 16-19s - and the Skills Funding Agency (19+) overseen by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to fund skills training for FE in England.
There was, however, one ray of sunshine in the grim early days of the recession: the launch in 2009 of Higher Apprenticeships, which led to the award of an HND, or a foundation or ‘ordinary level’ degree and the possibility of going on to take a full honours degree.
Looking for a career change? View and apply for the latest jobs on AoC Jobs.