Ben Gadsby, Head of Policy and Research at Impetus

Maybe I’m odd, but I often think of results day as edu-Christmas. Just like Christmas, young people open things and are occasionally disappointed. Just like Christmas, adults get nostalgic about the way things were when they were that age. And just like Christmas, the immediate aftermath is a quiet time to reflect on a year drawing to an end.

And so here we are, in the weeks between the years, reflecting on another crazy one. Of course, the top thing that people will remember in future about the academic year 2019-20 is the pandemic. The year that started with people returning, only for them to leave again for a bit, before they could return again, before it was time to leave. An educational hokey cokey of in, out, in, out – that’s what it was all about.

But I have a prediction: When we look back in a decade’s time, I don’t think we will see the pandemic as the most consequential feature of the early part of the decade. Something much bigger started before the pandemic, continued through it, and will continue beyond it.

Right now, we have a government that is almost uniquely interested in reshaping further education.

But the providers and colleges that make up the skills sector itself seem to be missing from the debate. These forces will have as much impact in the long term as the pandemic has in the short term.

It’s worth telling the full story of where FE fits in to the jigsaw puzzle that is government policy.

The Prime Minister comes to power promising to address a single pressing issue. Within six months, years of unstable politics have collapsed into a surprise General Election, to be dominated by that issue. Manifestos are rushed out, and the election is fought seemingly on a single slogan: Get Brexit Done.

Behind those headlines someone (Policy wonk? Speechwriter? Boris himself?) has crafted a worldview to go with the slogan. As the Prime Minister put it in his first speech, his role in the top job is “answering at last the plea of the forgotten people and the left-behind towns by physically and literally renewing the ties that bind us together… We level up across Britain with higher wages, and a higher living wage, and higher productivity.”

And from this worldview flows most of our education policy. A focus on technical education as a competitor to higher education rather than a compliment, which I have objected to before, built on an argument about wage returns. Reforms to level 3 qualifications to remove “low-quality qualifications that lack job prospects.” Lifelong loan entitlements to enable people to access these courses.

It is important to understand that this is the Prime Ministers’ agenda and it is being driven from Downing Street, not the department.

The education sector spends a lot of time being annoyed at Gavin Williamson for various things, often understandably. But he’s not driving this particular bus – the Prime Minister is.

The good news is that this high level buy in can help make stuff happen. Compare and contrast the sense of purpose in skills policy with other elements of education policy that do not have this buy in. The SEND review, first promised in September 2019, is the most striking example.

The bad news is that it seems to me that Number 10 is setting a big picture agenda, and driving it – but things are being done to the sector not with it. There’s lots of money for a priority like T levels but no money yet to raise the rate for colleges, for example.

You might think “government doing things without listening to anyone” is par for the course. But this fatalism is not correct. Because the government definitely is listening to some people when it comes to skills – industry. Flexible apprenticeships are on the way, because some industries asked for them and were listened to. The recent press release launching the consultation has two industry quotes – nothing from providers, though.

It’s not even that the further education sector is being ignored or overlooked – the truth is worse.

The sector is seen as an important stakeholder to be managed and mollified.

I see this most clearly in the National Tutoring Programme, which Impetus has been supporting in year 1. It was always fairly obvious that all of the arguments in favour of NTP, about disrupted learning, applied to 16-18 students as much as their younger peers. NTP has to work for post-16 too.

And yet, compare and contrast the government’s NTP offer pre and post-16 over the last year. Pre-16 it has a wide range of subjects, post-16 it’s focussed on English and maths. Pre-16 it has a list of quality suppliers, post-16 it’s do it yourself. Pre-16 it’s a thought-out programme, post-16 it’s a cash grant. The NTP offer post-16 is the easiest possible policy solution to the fact that colleges would have complained about being ignored if NTP had just stopped at 16. Have some cash so you don’t complain. Mollification in action.

I suppose the most obvious question is why the post-16 sector is perceived like this. I think the short answer is a combination of: key players having less direct experience of further education than schools and higher education; a lower public profile meaning they have historically been able to worry about it less; a cultural sense among right of centre types that education is mostly full of opponents in the form of lefties and union types anyway; and a related right of centre bias towards thinking about skills through the lens of the economy and employers first, and learners/the skills sector second.

The more interesting question is what would it take for the government – and Downing Street in particular – to see the further education sector as a partner, like industry? Much of the reasoning set out in the previous paragraph is pretty structural and immune to short term tactical campaigning, but from a policy perspective there’s room for improvement on both message and messenger.

On messenger, if government is listening to industry, then the further education sector needs to leverage its relationship with it. The British Chamber of Commerce has a people campaign focussing on addressing skills shortages. They are working with “government, businesses, academics and employees” on this, according to the website. The delivery part of the sector seems to be missing – apart from when businesses want to show off various career opportunities. From LEPs to household name businesses, there are potential allies out there to help deliver the message to the people that matter.

On message, the further education sector needs to make sure it is giving the right messages to the right people. People-wise, this is much more Downing Street focussed than usual. As for the right message – it’s obvious. The raise the rate website talks about a funding increase to “deliver a high quality, internationally-competitive education”. The template letter to MPs talks about cuts since 2010, and needing the funding to “increase student support services to the required level, protect minority subjects and provide the range of extra-curricular activities”. Take it from someone who has worked for Conservative MPs – this isn’t going to land with them.

The government will not see the sector as an ally unless it tries to ally itself to the government’s agenda.

The prize here is massive – a government so invested in the skills sector and willing to splash the cash on its priorities could be a boon. But as it stands, I think the opportunity will not only pass the sector by, but be seized by others to reshape further education.

Like at Christmas, it is not enough simply to write a wish list and wait with a heady mix of anticipation and hope. You need to make sure someone reads your list and acts on it.

As adults, we all know that presents do not appear under the tree by magic. The same is true with policymaking. The skills sector’s new year’s resolution should be to shape the levelling up debate, rather than being shaped by it.

Ben Gadsby, Head of Policy and Research at Impetus

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