From education to employment

You Cannot be Serious

ian pryce

Consequences of policy decisions are often unintended but they can be foreseen by those with experience of implementing them.  Better still, we can use starting axioms to reduce their likelihood.

One of the joys of summer is the annual reshowing of John McEnroe’s Wimbledon rant “you cannot be serious!” While John used the expression as a complaint, the phrase could also be a succinct criticism of many policy decisions in further education in recent years. 

Too often we see people lamenting the unintended consequences of policy decisions, but for many of us engaged in the delivery of public services, those consequences might be unintended, but they are completely foreseeable.

Most commonly we see these mistakes because policy makers do not start with what might be termed the main “users and choosers” of services.  Given this, would it make sense to try to develop some axioms from which to start?  Here are some that might help.

Reform is unpopular and people retreat to safety

Qualifications developed by educators are the ones that have stood the test of time – degrees, HNDs, A Levels, GCSEs, BTECs.  They have lasted decades and change slowly within the understood envelope/brand.  Consumer brands like Cadbury’s work in the same way, just look at the Dairy Milk brand.  When something totally new is introduced like Diplomas or T Levels or Foundation Degrees, no matter good they are, people retreat to what they know.  Just as investors turn to the safety of gold in tough times, the introduction of T Levels has seen an increase in the take up of A Levels for example.

Employers & government don’t choose qualifications, people do

Similarly, it doesn’t matter how good a qualification is, if you don’t consider the behaviour of the people who will be required to choose them. If you tell students a T Level is harder, longer and more specialist than the existing route, and it takes you away from your mates for 45 days, somewhere unspecified, and isn’t accepted by more universities, don’t be surprised when they aren’t super-enthused. The pitch is wrong, especially when the global educational trend is for compulsory education to last longer and be more general.  Going against global trends is especially hard.

Infrastructure crumbles if you don’t charge for it

The RAAC crisis has shown the folly of excluding the cost of school buildings from school accounts. Technically these costs are recognised in government accounts, but in aggregate, so there is no incentive to invest in every individual school. Schools ignore the cost of using taxpayer-funded buildings, so the system is designed to ensure the school estate is dire and falls apart.

Treat things as a commodity and the price falls sharply

It always amuses me that CPD run by a university highlights the individual delivering the session, and individual reputations are jealously guarded. There is definitely an academic pecking order. Every university lecturer is regarded as unique.  In colleges we tell you what you will learn and rarely big-up the presenter.  We treat teaching staff as if they are interchangeable, a commodity, which inevitably means all are measured on a lowest common denominator £ per hour valuation.  When we have a glut of applicants that is an efficient use of money; when staff have choices we soon run out of staff.

Popularity is a sign you are doing a good job

People know better than government is the traditional argument for lower taxes, but in further education governments always think they know better than our students. Since incorporation in 1993 colleges have become the most popular choice at 16-18, with a larger market share than school sixth forms, despite schools benefitting from inertia and possession!  We have turned round the fortunes of about a third of those failing maths and English GCSE in short order, we coped with the raising of the participation age.  Ipsos Mori found satisfaction with colleges was as high as in the NHS.  Despite this, influential people with no knowledge or expertise in technical education dismiss this and use different metrics to show colleges in an unfavourable light, compared to institutions that do not enjoy the same popular support.

The quality and volume of staff eventually reflects what you pay

Public services are all about people.  If you constrain funding and micromanage delivery (e.g. setting programme hours) you end up with having to pay most staff less.  There is evidence that once someone is paid less than 90% of their value, they will leave or perform grudgingly.  The outcome is inevitable.  Great staff leave, many go back to better paid technical jobs.  In turn colleges stop running those courses we cannot staff, so volume decreases. You cannot bank on staff goodwill for ever.

If you want colleges to succeed, focus on colleges not provision

DfE officials often state they are organised around three priorities – T Levels, Bootcamps and apprenticeships.  Hardly any college in the country derives more than 10% of their income from these things.  The atomisation of funding into streams means we don’t look at things in a holistic way and colleges suffer hugely as a result.  Imagine having different funding arrangements for every type of NHS treatment, or every different crime, and never thinking about a hospital or police force as a whole.  We have a schools minister, but not a colleges minister.  If you have no-one exclusively fighting your corner you end up with less funding, more criticism and less influence.  Titles and team responsibilities matter.  Focusing on a few, shiny, minority pursuits is especially harmful.

So, there are some starting points to consider.  But let’s not assume the past was more golden and rational than today.  As John McEnroe also said about how we view the past “the older I get, the better I used to be”!

By Ian Pryce, Chief Executive at The Bedford College Group

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