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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 June 2007, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Strategic split or messy divorce?
Mike Baker byline graphic
By Mike Baker

Ed Balls with Karem Gadd aged four
Gordon Brown put his chief ally Ed Balls in charge of schools
If the Department for Education and Skills had been a family, then this week's momentous changes would amount to a divorce, with potentially serious implications for the children.

The youngest child, called Schools, is staying with one parent. The oldest sibling, called Universities, is moving out with the other.

With one parent giving each its undivided attention, there may be some gains. But where does that leave the middle child, known as Further Education?

The answer seems to be: caught in the middle of a complicated custody battle, spending some time in each parent's home.

The optimists see the splitting of the old DfES into two separate departments as an opportunity for education to double its voice within the Cabinet.

One will be able to speak up purely for schools and the other for universities, skills and adult education.

First there is the Department for Children, Schools and Families. So, as well as a divorce to cope with, there is also a new acronym (as if we didn't have enough in education): the DCSF.

FE has been growing rapidly recently, expanding - like topsy - in every direction

Incidentally, an internet search for DCSF takes you to the Dennison Community Support Fund, a school support group in Colorado, which could prove confusing.

This, of course, is just the latest in a long line of labels for what started out as the Ministry of Education, a perfectly serviceable name, which lasted from 1944-1964.

It then became the Department for Education and Science (DES), then the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), and finally the Department for Education and Skills (DfES).

The second voice at the Cabinet table will come from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Its acronym, Dius, is even more fun as Dius Fidus was the Roman god of oaths (as in, I suppose, "I swear not to bring in top-up fees").

Yet what about poor old Further Education? Forever the Cinderella of education, FE had finally looked set to go to the ball with the new prime minister's focus on skills.

'Certain logic'

FE has been growing rapidly recently, expanding - like topsy - in every direction.

Thus its reach has extended down to pupils aged 14 and up to university level with the proposed powers to award Foundation Degrees.

So FE colleges need to be involved in the new 14-19 Diplomas as well as in delivering degree-level education. Yet this does not fit neatly within the new departmental split.

The rationale for the changes is that the DCSF will be able to deal with all aspects of childhood and families while the Dius will be able to focus on productive skills and the educational needs of a competitive economy.

This has a certain logic. Yet it falls down with Further Education. Its involvement in 14-19 will now fall to one department while its post-19 interests will belong to another.

Yet surely what has been long needed in vocational education has been some sense of a joined-up approach.

Britain, especially England, has long failed to produce a coherent approach for children and young adults with a bent towards practical and vocational courses.

Now the department responsible for skills will have nothing to do with young people until they are 19 - by which time, if they have been forced down an academic route, they will probably have lost interest in any sort of learning at all.

'Potential conflict'

Defenders of the change may say the current reforms will ensure there is a vocational route for school pupils who, from 2008, will be able to take Diplomas from the age of 14, at either schools or FE Colleges.

But it is already clear that the Diplomas will be academic learning in a vocational context, not practical learning.

A further issue arises: the Diplomas belong to the schools department, but their success depends heavily on their acceptance for university admissions, which comes under the remit of Dius.

There will also be a challenge for Gordon Brown's pet project: the raising of the education-leaving age from 16 to 18.

This will fall within the lap of the DCSF. Yet is there really any logic for splitting it off from the rest of adult education, which will be with Dius?

There is a further potential for conflict between the two departments since, as we have seen recently, the increased focus on funding courses for 16 to 19-year-olds has been at the expense of a big reduction in courses for other adult learners in FE.


Under the new arrangements, funding for all 16 to 19 education will in future go through local authority budgets, as already happens with school funding.

Meanwhile, other FE funding will continue to be channelled via the Learning and Skills Council.

So, all in all, it is hard to see the rationale for the upheaval that will now hit the former DfES.

Perhaps two separate departments will each be a more manageable size.

Certainly one former education secretary's response was that they would love to have run a department like the new DCSF.

But maybe, in the end, it is really all about sending out a signal that things will change now Gordon Brown is in charge - a way of drawing a line under the Blair era.

There is one other possible interpretation, albeit one that may be too cynical.

By splitting the department into two smaller power-bases, Prime Minister Brown will ensure that he can more easily direct education policy from Number 10.

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