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400+ varieties: Skillz Meanz Marketised FE

We should never underestimate the radical nature of the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992. This legislation set up colleges as stand-alone institutions with their own budgets, their own contracts and HR mechanisms.

Two main arguments were used to justify this. The first was that local authorities were inefficient and creamed off too much funding that should go directly to educational providers: incorporation would provide a level laying field. The second justification was that the market that the Act brought about, through competition, would drive up standards.

So, after more than twenty years of incorporation in FE and with more educational marketisation (in the shape of academies and free schools) in the offing, has marketisation delivered the goods in FE? And if not, why not?

Today, every college is its own fiefdom with the principal and senior leadership team making all the strategic and operational decisions that determine the practices and culture of each college. To that extent, although there may be superficial similarities between colleges (not least in the proliferation of atria!) each is distinct.

What we have then is a patchwork of provision (colleges but also private training providers) with different rules, practices and cultures in each, overlaid by a national formula for funding learning and a national inspection regime. This is a patchwork that students (and teachers) have to navigate. Part of this involves trying to make sense of achievement data and Ofsted inspection results.

This singularity provides an instructive parallel between colleges and prisons. Anyone who has had contact with Offender Learning knows that each prison also has a distinct culture and that the Governor is the key decision maker. Each Governor runs her / his prison according to her / his design while meeting the requirements of national imperatives as prescribed by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Secretary.

But the analogy with prisons as free-standing, self-defining institutions works, more significantly, on another level. Another thing that is commonly understood by teacher working in Offender Learning connects with something called “Regime”. In prisons, “Regime” takes priority over everything – and that includes teaching and learning. “Regime” is understood to mean security but also legal process and the demands of the institution around accommodation. This typically means that the education of individual students in prisons is often disrupted and continuity and coherence is lacking. Alongside institutional self-determination, “Regime” illustrates a hierarchy of purposes within the institution: in this case, that security takes precedence over education.

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How does this link to colleges? Well, there is already a regime that often dominates and takes precedence over teaching and learning in colleges. That is the regime of funding and the management of data around that. The fact is, the gaming and funding-centredness identified by Alison Wolf in the Wolf Report of 2011 is endemic. And in a context in which colleges have had huge chunks bitten out of their budgets, this has only been exacerbated.

This means that teachers are simply required to pass the students on their courses, college management demands it. “Regime” in the college context means funding-centredness: everything has to be geared to this, up to and including the way students are taught and the way teachers and departmental managers produce the required achievement data to enable the college to draw down the desired amount of funding. Within the FE market, the financial self-interest of each college is top priority.

So let’s be clear: apart from anything else, what marketisation hasn’t achieved in twenty years of incorporation is a rise in standards. No. The figures seem to demonstrate it – but, they are not reliable. Instead, if anything we can argue that funding-centredness has led to a decline in standards of learning and teaching because the existing accountability models push colleges towards spoon-feeding and fabrication rather than real learning. This means that when in their Key Facts annual review the AoC states:

Education and training success rates in colleges are 86.7%

– the number is meaningless. The best we can do is say that this percentage shows a mixture of students working hard and college gaming practices including coercive accreditation (AKA spoon-feeding) has resulted in an 86.7% success rate.

Despite all this, teachers will go on working hard in FE. Because many of them view teaching as a vocation (in the other meaning of the word). The real quality that teachers bring to their work falls outside the measuring and performance tools that have become so pervasive. Despite the inconstancy of the 400+ marketised varieties of FE, FE teachers will continue to be responsible for the positive educational experiences that impact positively on countless students’ real lives.

Dr Rob Smith is a co-founder of the Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education and a Reader in Lifelong Education at Birmingham City University

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