From education to employment

A Broad View of Further Education

Matt Waddup, University and College Union

#Post16RevolutionaryReforms – Start with an external review, add in some international comparisons, promise more money, implement qualification reform and explain how you intend to simplify the mission.

Then repeat every five years, each time with less funding.

Rising Expectations

After thirty years of false starts no wonder frontline FE staff are cynical about governments that promise to “revolutionise” further education. So far, the build-up to the white paper is following the playbook precisely. The government says it wants to build a “German-style” system, create a bonfire of qualifications, drive a shift from university to technical education and supercharge employer engagement.

Certainly, our FE system is in urgent need of help.  As Gavin  Williamson himself was shocked to discover we have lost more than one million adult learners since his government came to power in 2010; while 18-year-olds in colleges have been systematically underfunded; and college staff have seen their pay fall dramatically in value compared to their counterparts in schools and universities.

Meanwhile, the impact of Covid-19 has exacerbated the fragile finances of the sector with 13% of colleges close to insolvency and 40% actively considering redundancies. We know too the huge impact that the pandemic has had upon apprenticeships and other vocational opportunities. Firms are focused on their own survival and retaining the staff they have not on taking on new people.

The Reset Button has been Pressed

So, will it be different this time? To be positive, Covid-19 has unquestionably pressed the reset button on the established norms of public policy in the UK. Outside wartime government has never taken on such great powers nor intervened to such an extent in the economy or in fact in education.

Change has been fast and furious. One week the government was calling for less people to go to university, the next it was ripping up its algorithm and agreeing to thousands more attending.

No doubt this was the right decision for these extraordinary times but an illustration that we are in uncharted waters and things can change fast when the politics demands it.

Beyond Robbing HE to Fund FE

This really is, therefore, the perfect time to think big about FE and the whole post-16 landscape. But that will mean government looking again at its ‘zero-sum’ view that to fund FE we must reduce spending on HE – and to justify that we must cast doubt on the value of university.

Our country needs more investment across post-16 education, not some binary process in which one sector’s gain is another’s loss – not least because in any bun fight it will be HE that gets the buns as the A-Level debacle has proved beyond doubt.

Be Wary of the Narrow View of FE

We must also be wary of the narrow view that FE is simply about vocational and technical skills and supporting employers. This work is very important but it is vital to our society and economy that it does not crowd out the incredibly diverse mission that FE has.

The local college can provide the first steps back into learning for many as well as the ability to learn our language for newcomers. Colleges provide pathways into higher education as well as the opportunity to gain a degree locally. They even provide rehabilitation for the tens of thousands of prisoners who study under offenders learning programmes.

Despite everything thrown at them, colleges are still remarkable places that change lives on a macro scale. All those different ways in which colleges work with their communities matter – to the fabric of our society and our economy.

Beyond Qualifications and Standards

Education white papers often focus on qualifications and standards. For this white paper, DfE should stand back and ask a different question:

In a post-Covid-19 society where huge economic change has been unleashed and where the pandemic has hit the poor and the already disadvantaged the hardest: what is it that we need post-16 education to do?

The gap between the funding of students in FE compared to schools and universities is the biggest impediment to progress in this area. The white paper should actively close that gap and, more particularly, set out concrete plans to improve the pay and status of the brilliant staff who work in FE – not just some but all.

Three Reforms for the White Paper

  1. First, the post-16 white paper should start with learners rather than structures and qualifications, establishing a clear, funded right-to-learn for every citizen, as a precondition for a more equal as well as a more productive society.
  2. Second, the white paper must for once and for all create a properly funded, national information and guidance (IAG) service through which anyone can get independent advice about their education and career options.
  3. And third, the white paper should place a new legal duty for all post-16 institutions to cooperate with each other to the benefit of learners in FE and HE. This alongside the right to learn would be transformative for those who need FE most.

Matt Waddup, University and College Union

‘Revolutionary Forces’

In the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget that there were wider revolutionary forces at work on the UK’s economy before the virus outbreak.

Issues such as Brexit, the rise of automation in the workplace, longer working lives, and poor UK productivity have brought into even sharper focus, education and skills. NCFE and Campaign for Learning (CfL), published the first in the series of ‘Revolutionary Forces’ discussion papers on 6 July 2020.

In this Revolutionary Forces series different perspectives and proposed reforms for the post-16 education and training system have been brought together in one pamphlet, from expert stakeholders, think-tanks and educational professionals.

Building on the recommendations outlined in the first paper for flexible reforms that support economic and social renewal, this new paper, “Reforms for a Revolutionary Post-16 White Paper“, takes a deeper look at which areas need to be addressed.

The authors are:

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