I participated in a panel at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) annual conference in Liverpool recently, providing what I hope was an impartial perspective on Area Reviews. My co-panellists were Eddie Playfair, Principal of Newham Sixth Form College, and Janet Clark, ATL’s Education Policy Advisor. For my part, I chose to revisit some of the themes on Area Reviews which I first posed in an FE News article last December and, in particular, the element of the process geared to take account of each locality’s educational and economic needs.

In my previous article I cited the relative supply and demand for A Levels in Drama, and used this example again at the ATL conference. In short, the evidence shows that the number of students studying A Level Drama far outstrips the number of jobs in the Performing Arts sector, which are primarily concentrated in the South East. In contrast, for example, the demand for skills in the low carbon sector are seemingly a growing priority identified by multiple LEPs.

One audience member challenged me by suggesting that the A Level Drama student may still acquire transferable skills of relevance to a low carbon employer through the course of their study. This is undeniably true, and I think there should be much greater emphasis on transferable skills within the Post 16 market. I countered this point, however, by suggesting that the low carbon employer, if given the choice between a candidate with a drama qualification or a low carbon skills qualification, would more often than not offer a job to the latter. In this respect, if Area Reviews are to provide a genuine perspective on localism, we need to rethink the mainstay range of subjects offered by FE colleges.

My co-panellists both made a very valid point in regard to how Area Reviews must also reflect the aspiration of learners, who may have a personal passion to study a particular minority subject. Again, I agree. Dame Judi Dench is from Yorkshire and Sir Ian McKellen is from Lancashire, evidently proving that Drama should not be limited to students in the South East, just because that’s where all the jobs are! But this needs appropriate context, and the needs and aspirations of local students and local employers must surely be better married up in determining a local curriculum offer.

The panel session more broadly highlighted the concerns of the FE practitioners regarding the Area Review process. There was more than one perceptual anecdote of where the Review process had been contrived to fit a pre-determined outcome. There were queries in respect that the Reviews had not fully encompassed all sixth form and independent provision. There was concern about the situation in Knowlsley, where the last school offering A-Levels is consulting on plans to close its sixth form, which would end all A-Level provision in the borough.

Much was also made about so called “economies of scale”, and the perception of Area Reviews as purely a means to drive financial efficiencies. Some audience contributors had already equated this to campus closures, making it harder to service rural learners, and equally presenting challenges in big cities, where there are what I can best describe as cultural and community barriers for learners travelling between different boroughs to study. Achieving economies of scale should not, however, lead to default campus closures if this is not in the best interests of the local economy, and the Area Review process surely has to be in tune with this. Whilst remote digital learning may inevitably be part of the future, concerns over the quality of learning in “teacherless classrooms” must be weighed up. Not all Area Reviews need to result in the same extent of economies as each other!

I found the session as enjoyable as I did educational, in better understanding the perspectives of teachers. Indeed, raising the voice of teachers in the Area Review process was, perhaps unsurprisingly, an ATL objective. Like all stakeholders, the expectations of teachers may not be fully realised, there is inevitable give and take, but they do have a contribution to make, and they should be listened to.

Jim Carley is managing director of Carley Consult, a specialist business development agency supporting the skills and employability sectors

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