From education to employment

“Set it down with gold on lasting pillars”: In search of FE’s golden age

Stephen Exley

Has there ever been a golden age for FE? There has been no shortage of attempts to map-out what one might look like in England, not least through the litany of government-commissioned reports churned out since incorporation.

From Leitch to Lingfield, from Moser to Foster, there have been isolated examples of astute analysis. But the success in achieving parity of esteem (a tired cliché that deserves packing off to an isolated island, along with its cousin ‘the Cinderella sector’) between the gilded citadels of higher education and the paupers of further education in the public consciousness has been virtually non-existent.

The addition to the pile of every new official report has merely served to reinforce the toothlessness of its predecessors. The latest effort, the so-called Augar Review, set out a bold reimagining of post-18 education in England – and a fundamental rebalancing of the relationship between HE and FE.

At the launch of the report, Prime Minister Theresa May managed to pledge to ‘boost further education spending and put right the errors of the past’ – shortly before being ushered out of Number 10 by her party.

The government that followed, led by old Etonian Boris Johnson, made the long-overdue announcement that the 16–18 base funding rate was to be raised for the first time in seven years, thanks to a £400 million cash injection (a modest sum, in the context of the cuts that had preceded it).

The news was delivered by the chancellor (and former Filton Technical College student) Sajid Javid, who pledged: ‘I’ll continue to look what more we can do to help, just as my FE college opened my horizons and set me on my way.’

Within six months, he had resigned from the Cabinet, claiming he had been left with ‘no option’, after being ordered to sack his trusted advisers. Another false dawn.

So, after decades of being battered and tossed around by changing political winds, the tempest has brought FE to the Isle of Wonder, a (seemingly) safe haven caught between its painful past and fluid, fluctuating visions for its future.

But whether one is looking at the sector’s history, its present or what is yet to come, it’s worth bearing in mind one of the most-cited quotations from another of Shakespeare’s plays, The Merchant of Venice: ‘All that glisters is not gold.’


The simple message from the aphorism above is that appearances can be deceptive; not everything that looks precious or true turns out to be so. This motif, cynics might suggest, takes us neatly back to arguably the single political change that genuinely and irrevocably changed the nature of the English FE sector: incorporation in 1993.

For its supporters, this was when colleges gained their freedom: freedom from LEA control, freedom to set higher pay, and freedom through greater autonomy. In the years that followed, participation, retention and success rates increased. And that was just the start of the radical redefinition of the college landscape. In 1993, there were almost 450 FE and sixth-form colleges; today, there are barely half that number.

The next great change came with the coalition government (elected in 2010) and the advent of austerity. In the years 2010/11 and 2018/19, per-student funding for 16- to 18-year-olds fell by 12 per cent in real terms. Even after Javid’s investment outlined in 2019, per-student funding in 2020/21 will remain 7 per cent below its level in 2010/11. For adult education, the situation is even bleaker: total spending (excluding apprenticeships) dropped by almost half between 2009/10 and 2018/19, largely driven by student numbers collapsing from 4.4 million in 2004/05 to 1.5 million in 2017/18.

Predictably, the main victims of this decade of cuts have been FE staff. A 2017 report by the Education and Training Foundation revealed that the college workforce in England had dropped by 9 per cent – the equivalent of 12,000 full-time roles – over a three-year period. For those who remain, average teaching salaries in colleges are now £7,000 less than in schools. In one case, Amersham and Wycombe College, staff went over a decade without an annual pay rise. For those on the front line, the conclusion is clear: incorporation has failed.

In the words of Stuart Rimmer (2019), the principal of East Coast College in England: “There are too many old-thinking college principals holding to the glory days of freedom from LEA control, higher pay and promises of autonomy that have never truly materialized. Incorporation has failed to protect the security of colleges, of staff and students. It has failed to protect continued investment, it has failed to protect high standards, it has failed to protect support from those in high government since 1992.”

Colleges may have won their freedom – but the cost has been profound.


The storms of Brexit may place the UK in peril, but the prospect of the tide of immigration (cynically inflated and exploited by Brexiteers) being turned back by Boris Johnson, Brexit Britain’s answer to King Cnut, has dragged FE into the political limelight.

Speaking at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference, education secretary Gavin Williamson vowed to ‘supercharge further education’ over the next decade.

A clear parallel can be drawn with the language being used by government to describe its latest flagship FE policy: the introduction of ‘gold-standard’ T levels. These two-year qualifications will, the Department for Education proclaims, ‘provide the knowledge and experience needed to open the door into skilled employment, further study or a higher apprenticeship’. Yet the confidence and certainty coursing through this statement belies the challenges the initiative has faced from its infancy.

The challenges posed by tight timescale for the design and delivery of T levels were of such magnitude that Jonathan Slater, the most senior civil servant in the Department for Education, felt compelled to take the unusual step of publicly raising his concerns over the ‘ambitious’ project, requiring a formal ministerial direction for the project to be continued in spite of these objections.

Most embarrassing of all, the former skills minister Anne Milton admitted before the House of Commons Education Select Committee that, as a mother, she would advise her own children to ‘leave it a year’ before taking the very qualifications she had been tasked with championing.

Let’s not forget that introducing a mainstream, technical post-16 qualification that will win the confidence of students, parents and employers is something that no government has managed to carry out successfully. The most recent attempt – New Labour’s 14–19 diploma – was scrapped by the coalition government after two years – and £300 million in investment.

Nonetheless, T levels have repeatedly been described in government statements as one of three ‘gold-standard’ routes open for post-16 students, alongside A levels and apprenticeships. So what evidence is there to back up this claim? The answer is simple: none whatsoever.

As former City & Guilds Group chief executive Chris Jones put it in 2019:

“As of today, we have no student that has studied a T Level. No student has been examined in a T level. No student has progressed into a job with a T Level. No student has progressed to university with a T level. How on earth can we say it is a gold standard?”

Yet, as Education and Training Foundation chief executive David Russell pointed out, ‘gold-standard’ is simply a metaphor, an inference into the quality of a qualification that is impossible to prove or disprove. The act of describing T levels as ‘gold-standard’, he suggests, can actively play a role in their being perceived as such.


Whether or not you accept this argument, it brings the question back to the tensions at the heart of the FE sector’s identity crisis. Can a sector that is defined by being other to the more established and recognized parts of the education system – schools and universities – ever be regarded as gold standard by the public at large?

For those who have lived, breathed, even bled for FE, its maltreatment at the hands of successive governments feels like wilful abuse of the worst kind. Reports on FE almost always fall back into comparisons with life before the coalition, as if FE prior to austerity was a land of plenty. It may, in many respects (not least funding), have been better than what followed, but it was by no means utopian. And this deficit model does the sector a disservice.

Another unfortunate consequence of the battering of the FE sector’s morale during the decade of disappointment is the pervading sense of gratitude that emerges from sector bodies when any scraps are tossed in FE’s direction.

Make no mistake: the extra £400 million funding package for 16–18 education last summer was badly needed. But it was a mere step in the right direction – and a modest one at that.

The FE sector changes lives. Receiving proper funding should be seen as its entitlement, not a favour. The University and College Union has undoubtedly played a valiant role in fighting for the FE sector’s right to dance but its 2017 petition, calling on the government to recruit 15,000 staff to restore the college workforce to 2009 levels, missed the point. FE’s ambition should on no account be limited to simply returning to a past when things were not quite as bad as they are now. It can do better.

Further education is a community of survivors and visionaries – one that has survived the tempest and earned the right to dream, to dance. The Dancing Princesses continue to cavort – and their number is growing. From #ukfechat to #FEresearchmeet, they are carving out new spaces to explore, to reflect, to share. And the sector is theirs for the taking.

Take the example of the redoubtable members of the National Association for Teaching English and Other Community Languages to Adults, representing the ESOL sub-sector’s practitioners and supporters. Rather than waiting for a national strategy to be created for them, they took matters into their own hands and drafted their own. Before long, civil servants began to follow suit.

When FE sets the agenda, others follow.

The golden age of further education will not be enabled by a white paper, pronounced by a press release or enacted by legislation. Dancing is no longer enough; it’s time for FE to call the tune.

Stephen Exley, Director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust, report author for the Further Education Trust for Leadership and former further education editor at Tes

An extract from Caliban’s Dance: FE after The Tempest, edited by Maire DaleyKevin Orr and Joel Petrie.  Trentham Books, UCL IOE Press, 2020.

Save 20% on the paperback with code FVCAL at UCL IOE Press

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