Ministers are rapidly losing credibility over funding and direction of FE and Skills policy, survey shows

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Policy Consortium member, Ian Nash, highlights key results from the third annual survey of FE and Skills run by the Policy Consortium with FE Week and sets them in the prevailing policy context.

What does a government do when it has lost touch with what is reasonable and practicable, in the overwhelming view of both the electorate and experts who provide government-supported services which offer advice on them?

In the case of schools academisation, the NHS doctors’ contract, tax credits, disability benefits, Sunday trading laws, cuts to police spending and so much more, they have performed very big U-turns.

So, how far should we expect the same for FE colleges and skills training? If you share even slim hopes on this, as do a huge proportion of the people responding to the third annual FE and Skills survey, don’t hold your breath. The survey, carried out by the Policy Consortium in association with FE Week, suggests that ministers are in anything but ’listening mode’.

After a climb-down over the latest tranche of adult spending cuts in the Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, there is little sign of any further change, despite so much evidence that the reforms simply are not working and are unlikely to work – indeed, may actually be counter-productive, particularly for the most disadvantaged in society.

Concerns expressed in the survey cannot be dismissed as voices from ‘the usual suspects’ in the FE sector. They are echoed by, for example, the CBI in its latest attack on the government’s failure to invest in a whole range of measures to revive British manufacturing. The Local Government Association has voiced concerns over government policy that will force them to employ tens of thousands of trainees under the apprenticeships drive, without essential resources for such a commitment.

The CBI, LGA and others expect the FE and Skills sector to play a big part here. But how? More than 730 people responded to the survey. Full analysis will be in a detailed report from June 17, but initial analysis of the result offers little cause for optimism without a fundamental Government rethink.

Respondents were asked to grade their level of concern on a scale from zero (no concern) to 3 (extreme concern). Numbers were crunched to get a figure for the whole group in each of almost 90 different policy areas. Clearly, anything approaching 3 should ring alarm bells in the corridors of Whitehall – and there were many.

Funding comes top of the rankings with 2.56 for ‘levels/rates of institutional funding’ and 2.47 for ‘adequacy of learner funding’. Third on the list – and this should really worry ministers – is ‘broad government “direction of travel” for FE and skills’ with 2.38, followed by ‘external bureaucracy’ with 2.36. ‘Staff workload’ and ‘reform of apprenticeships’ are joint seventh on 2.28. In fact, 21 out of 88 areas on which respondents answered a detailed questionnaire had concerns approaching the level of “extreme”.

Ministers might have won more support had they been seen as both more caring and more competent, with a better grasp and understanding of the issues. Indeed, the survey shows considerable support for the broad policy commitments towards better apprenticeships, devolution of powers and responsibilities, a clearer focus on skills and improved partnership working.

But such support is undermined by a perceived lack of clarity on funding and confused or poorly-implemented policy. The whole question of devolution and how the government is going about Area Reviews is cause for ‘extreme concern’. Additionally, apprenticeships are seen as the only thing minsters currently really care about, with little regard for wider FE learner needs, particularly regarding the disadvantaged. The level of concern over external bureaucracy makes a mockery of Government’s much-vaunted ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and claims to slash red tape and paperwork.

The profile of respondents is heavyweight – mainly comprising leaders and managers, with a strong showing from admin support staff, lecturers and trainers. Eight out of ten are full-time employees and over half have been in the sector for at least 13 years. These are very experienced people with a strong commitment to the sector, therefore, and around half of the respondents are involved in front-line delivery.

There appeared to be glimmers of hope over funding in the early analysis of survey data. For example, compared with 2015, when 73 per cent expressed “extreme concern”, the figure for 2016 is 65 per cent. But closer analysis shows that this was not because fears of colleges and other providers were being allayed. Rather, it was because the impact of the cuts caused even greater concerns around the practical issues of learning, curriculum and management. For example, the introduction of compulsory maths and English to GCSE grade A*-C for all up to AGE 19, with the backdrop of a teacher recruitment crisis and static or reduced funding has exacerbated problems across the curriculum.

The Government needs to take heed if it is to regain the sector’s respect and confidence. Three-quarters of respondents at every level felt uncertain about the sector’s role and value in the emerging post-reform world. Roughly the same proportion were moderately or extremely concerned about their power to influence change and the impact of devolution.

We included a new question this year, asking what issues people were optimistic about. Among FE and skills professionals, that feeling remains in short measure, not least because of constant denigration of their efforts by Ofsted. Over half of the respondents took advantage of this opportunity. It is striking that their responses were often phrased along the lines of: “I would be optimistic if it wasn’t for…” The most positive remarks from respondents are around the capacity of the workforce to deliver and hopes for learners. But, set against this, there is a feeling that FE is being run down – and that what matters to so many current and potential learners doesn’t matter to the Government.

The best that can be said from these survey results in relation to ministerial hopes and expectations for the FE and Skills sector is that there is agreement with some aspects of general policy, but that the architecture is flawed and the Government needs to do something about that quickly.

This article is an update of the viewpoint published in FE Week on Monday May 9: http://feweek.co.uk/2016/05/06/funding-remains-top-concern-for-third-year/

 

 

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