Amid the massive challenges facing FE, LSIS commissioned the RSA Public Services Hub to consider how the sector might look in 2020. This research indicates that with youth unemployment at near-record levels and spending pressures driving cost reductions and new strategies for coping, the thinking of many in the sector is undergoing a sea change.
On the one hand, researchers found fear about the further encroachment of the market into further education. Some interviewees said: "People are in denial. They don't actually believe [the Coalition's reforms] are going to happen..."
But they also discovered a sense of liberation at the offer of a new culture of flexibility and entrepreneurialism: some said: "A college should not just be a purveyor of courses. It should be a key agent of social mobility."
Over the past twenty years, central government has driven reform and expansion, using the sector as one of the principal 'levers' with which to increase the country's skills levels. Now, it is loosening its grip and promising the sector more freedom to make decisions. Although funding and performance management systems still lag behind the rhetoric, the direction of change is clear - the sector is being invited to map its own new path. But it is being asked to do so at a time when there is a lot less money.
The change is most dramatic at local level. In some respects local authorities are more able to make decisions, merge budgets and identify local priorities; while in other respects, authority is being withdrawn, as local public service institutions become more accountable to their service users. In other words, traditional local government is being challenged by 'hyper localism' and the emergent Local Enterprise Partnerships.
The report argues that in all this, further education providers sit at the crossroads between two long-term futures. In one, liberalisation and spending cuts lead to retrenchment and uncertainty; markets create winners and losers without engaging citizens and further education remains a "Cinderella" service pushed and pulled by more powerful local players.
The alternative is a future which is fundamentally more collaborative, networked, and socially productive; where colleges seize the day and become incubators of social value and hubs for service integration; where further education serves the needs of learners through being a creative and central partner in wider local growth and service reform agendas.
Social productivity - an idea developed by the Commission on 2020 Public Services - lies at the heart of achieving this second future. It means shifting from a culture of top-down, silo-based delivery of services, to one that recognises that social value is "co-created" between the service and user. At root, it is the idea that 'public services should explicitly be judged by the extent to which they help citizens, families and communities to achieve the social outcomes they desire'.
The research tells us that in many places there is emerging, on-the-ground practice and innovation which is already pointing the way to this socially productive future for further education, responsive to the local community.
There are five potential key future directions:
First, is FE as creators of social value. At best, the further education sector can be life transforming, but at worst it can be a production line, obsessed with qualifications and narrowly instrumental in outlook. To be transformative by 2020, the sector should broaden its outlook and become the incubator of social value through the interaction between services and their staff, citizens and their communities.
Second is for FE to be the catalyst for local economic growth. For 2020, we must abandon top-down delivery and develop a culture shift towards networked local growth where the sector co-creates value, future jobs and economic growth through better relationships across the spectrum of learners and employers, and also engaging wider public authorities and civil society at large.
The third direction for FE is to drive public service integration. The sector has always had to look outwards and be more flexible than many parts of the public services. So at a time of intense pressure to generate efficiencies and get 'more for less', further education could become a lead integrator of local services.
Fourth is for the FE sector to act as an exemplar for engaging citizens with public service. FE's ability to co-create learning opportunities with their learners and offer civic spaces can put FE at the heart of powerful networks of active citizens.
Fifth is for FE to build on a strongly held view that "further education is far more flexible than the rest of the education landscape"- online, in communities, in workplaces, formally and informally.
Our interest is in stimulating the debate about the strategic way forward. We don't expect all colleges and providers to pursue all five directions – some may be more relevant than others for a particular institution. We hope that the report will foster debate and ambition to support the sector in envisioning and determining its own future. In LSIS we therefore look forward to engaging in discussions, receiving comments and feedback on the report and understanding what it means for both those leading organisations in the sector and for us in supporting your continuing development. Rob Wye is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, which aims to accelerate the drive for excellence in the learning and skills sector
The report, The further education and skills sector in 2020: a social productivity approach, commissioned by LSIS from the 2020 Public Services Hub at the RSA, can be found here. Comments would be very welcome to
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