Stephen Exley, former TES Further Education Editor

Over the last three years, there have been enough pivots, swivels and pirouettes in ministers’ attitudes to the #Augar review to fill a series of Strictly Come Dancing.

The recommendations scattered through its 216 pages have gone from being dismissed as dead on arrival to regarded as the lynchpin of the government’s mission to “build back better”.

The drama, though, has taken place in Whitehall offices rather than in the glare of the spotlight

 

The drama, though, has taken place in Whitehall offices rather than in the glare of the spotlight. And the publication of a flimsy interim response alongside the Skills for Jobs white paper, dotted with already-knowns and yet-to-be-decideds, means that the intrigue will continue for some time yet. The full, final response and associated funding commitments – the series finale, if you will – has been postponed until the comprehensive spending review. Given the uncertainties posed by the pandemic, what happens next is far from clear.

The report began its life as a means by which the government planned to introduce variable tuition fees for different types of university degree, based on their economic usefulness. Following its launch at Derby College and the appointment of softly spoken former investment banker Philip Augar to lead it, the review soon developed a new focus. By the time I attended its launch at Policy Exchange in May 2019, the outgoing prime minister had suddenly developed a burning passion for FE and the report had become a manifesto for a wholesale rebalancing of FE and HE to create a unified post-18 educational sector, with funding shared more equitably across the academic/vocational divide. As I wrote at the time, the elephant in the room was whether May’s successor would share her new-found zeal for all things FE or whether it would be quietly ushered back into the shadows.

As it turned out, the Boris Johnson-led government’s 2019 general election success in the Red Wall constituencies - with voters far more interested in their local college than the citadels of HE - dragged Augar’s recommendations back on track and in alignment with the government’s direction of travel. Covid, of course, meant the plans have been shelved until now. And the gaping black hole in the Treasury’s finances mean that revitalising further education and skills training risks becoming as unaffordable as it is vital. As Andy Westwood has pointed out, neither the white paper nor the interim Augar response has made common cause with priorities in other parts of government, such as developing a place-based R&D strategy, tackling post-furlough unemployment or refreshing the industrial strategy. Or, as Jonathan Simons from Public First puts it, the soaring rhetoric about rebalancing FE and HE is backed up by neither political not financial capital.

But let’s stay optimistic

But let’s stay optimistic: transforming FE through increased funding and political focus is a step which badly needs to be taken. This is a familiar journey for Villiers Park Educational Trust. We are a national social mobility charity, which works with 14-19 students from disadvantaged backgrounds to empower them to take control of their own futures. Traditionally we were a widening participation organisation, supporting academically gifted young people to progress to elite higher education institutions. It was, and remains, an important mission and one which we carry out effectively, as thousands of alumni can testify. The world, however, has changed – and so have we. The exclusive focus on HE has been replaced by our pioneering Future Leaders programme, designed to help young people from less advantaged backgrounds succeed in their chosen field, however they choose to get there - whether that be through college, an apprenticeship or university. We are focused on giving young people agency to develop and pursue their own ambitions through whatever form of education is most appropriate – and recognising that their progress may not be linear or straightforward but may involve shifting between different pathways, as dictated by their personal circumstances.

As a broad direction of travel, education secretary Gavin Williamson’s pledge in the white paper to “move on from previous underestimations of further and technical education and reinforce its pivotal role as a pathway to a bright future” is to be welcomed wholeheartedly. In particular, the introducing a flexible lifelong loan entitlement, equivalent of four years of post-18 education, from 2025, and facilitating more flexible and modular provision to allow for the complex routes young people’s education can take.But the white paper and interim response to Augar have left us with two key concerns.

First, the rhetoric about raising the status in which FE is regarded does not quite feel to have landed

First, the rhetoric about raising the status in which FE is regarded does not quite feel to have landed. While the Augar response stresses an ambition to ensure “the quality of our technical and academic education is on a par”, that is not to say that they will be regarded as being of equal status in society. When the document continues by arguing that “every student with the aptitude and desire to go to university [should] be able to do so”, it’s hard not to feel that a sheep and goats mentality, with FE being for “other people’s children”, pervades. A false boundary between HE and FE, explicit or implicit, is a blockage on social mobility.

And putting employers in the driving seat – a desire reiterated by most recent governments but achieved by none – risks limiting students’ ambitions to the employment options to which there is a clear line of sight in their local area. Yes, the labour market must inform post-16 education, but it must not be a cap on aspiration, particularly for young people in rural and deprived areas. At Villiers Park, we passionately believe that the role of education is creating the leaders of the future, able to move between education pathways, employment sectors and geographical areas to become as successful as they can be. The priority should not be to just help them find any job, but to give them agency and allow their ambitions to soar. Allowing for meaningful transition and flexibility is key.

Encouraging young people from less advantaged backgrounds to progress to HE

Second, what of widening participation and encouraging young people from less advantaged backgrounds to progress to HE? The danger to this vital activity was made explicit by universities minister Michelle Donelan’s controversial speech on “true social mobility” last summer, in which she argued that the access regime has “let down” young people who were “taken advantage of” and left “with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off”. To our fellow members of the Fair Access Coalition of third sector providers striving to achieve social mobility, this felt like a misguided attack – and one which could endanger years of progress in this field. Improving access to HE – alongside a revitalised FE sector which receives the funding it deserves and needs – is part of the solution, not part of the problem. And it was conspicuous by its absence from the government’s response to Augar.

The white paper and interim conclusion to Augar have omissions and weaknesses, but they represent a badly needed change of direction, not just for our education system but for our society. Ahead of the next comprehensive spending review, we at Villiers Park are ready to do our part to help make it a success.

Stephen Exley is director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust, and former further education editor at TES

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