Nick Boles and ‘The coming of Age for FE?’

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The Policy Consortium’s Ian Nash contrasts the skills minister’s doubts about the future of the general FE college with the expert evidence in the new book ‘The coming for Age for FE?’. 

Sources within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are suggesting area reviews of FE following the Chancellor’s Budget on Wednesday. Some see this as the Tory Government fulfilling its General Election manifesto promise of greater localism. That may be true, but it seems to be very far from the main intention.

Two weeks ago Nick Boles, the skills minister, in his first speech since the election, cast doubts on the future of the general FE (GFE) college model. Boles’ address to the annual conference of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers may have been a useful occasion for firing a warning shot – seeking to soften a blow of budget cuts. He will have been heavily influenced by the next round of “austerity” and the fact that BIS has little scope to decide what will survive and what will not.

But even with suggestions of further consultations on the matter, the thrust of his message was centralist: colleges can choose to teach anything they want – so long as it’s skills. So, are we seeing this government finally abandon what they created over two decades ago? If Conservative policy of incorporating colleges was to set them free from local authorities, so they could respond to the market, does it mean the policy has failed if a Tory central government is again stepping in to determine the shape of the FE system? Or did the market fail and is the drive for 3 million apprenticeships an attempt to re-boot it?

Anyone accepting the Minister’s invitation to reflect on whether GFEs have had their day should first of all look carefully at the varied and important roles they have played over the past 20 or more years. There is detailed evidence around this in The Coming of Age for FE? Reflections on the part and future role of further education colleges in England. The book, edited by Professor Ann Hodgson and to which Policy Consortium members contributed, is an honest stock-take of the sector, looking critically at its strengths and weaknesses.

There have been many weaknesses but general FE is not one of them. Detailed interviews with 17 former Secretaries of State and ministers reveal an emerging cross-party consensus increasingly rooted in vocational education and training but never abandoning the generalist approach. It was always seen as an essential lifeline, recognition of educational values beyond the utilitarian and a staging post towards the skills ladder for many. Colleges still had flexibility in what was offered; in this, professional judgment was equally important – again, as evidence in the book illustrates.

Such evidence begs the question: Where is Boles coming from? One clear trend over the past couple of decades has been the virtual disappearance of specialist colleges – about half the agricultural and horticultural ones have gone, as have nearly all those for Art & Design, the College of Food, the Nursery Nurses College and more besides (and in the HE sector the colleges of education).  Stubbornly poor quality occasionally played a part but much of the contraction in specialist provision has been about unsustainable funding. It’s fascinating that among the colleges now in most trouble are the highly specialised sixth-form colleges. Now, it appears, the GFE colleges are for the chop.

There have been ministers with a history of defending the sector. As former Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted near the end of his time in office, in 2010 BIS officials were happy for FE to take all the cuts – wiping it out. Cable and John Hayes, the FE minister, flatly refused to sanction such cuts. As ministers and others point out in The Coming of Age for FE? general FE colleges continue to provide invaluable service to the local community.

Unfortunately, now, with the new secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, disengaged from skills, and Boles apparently seeing apprenticeships as a political career-maker, knives are once again being sharpened with FE in mind. In his AELP speech, he presented net present value (NPV) calculations to suggest returns on £1 invested in Level 3 apprenticeships equals £28 compared with £16 from the equivalent in FE. Listening to him, senior researchers who advise the government described the argument as “crude” and said it raised questions about how serious the government was in current consultations over the dual mandate agreed by Cable – for both adult learning and reskilling adult workers. Indeed, the term “dual mandate may prove to be a cruel irony, as the emerging GFE mandate looks like soon being almost entirely elsewhere.

Regardless of such consultations, advisers are concerned that, in the words of one: “The policy world we have known is coming to an end, and what follows is liable to be bleak, fragmented, shrunken and riven with disputes.”

If the Government is intent on killing-off general FE, can it succeed? Chapter 8 of The Coming of Age for FE? describes a situation where people in Westminster pull various levers and sometimes the machine doesn’t move where it’s supposed to and sometimes doesn’t move at all. Boles has thrown some questions into the air; whether these translate into policy or actually change the structure of colleges on the ground remains to be seen. DFE have found reorganising a single small sixth form college (Totton) to be more expensive than expected so money may act as a constraint. It’s not the only one. There’s a web of laws and entitlements relating to colleges which need legislation and a political will to reform, particularly from back-benchers who rate their local colleges highly.

The bigger picture is of a majority Conservative government committed to a small state which has promised to balance the UK government budget by 2018, cut taxes and protect the NHS, pensions and a long list of other promises. Budgets for post-16 education and a lot else besides will get crunched in the process. Back to the question: whither FE? Collateral damage – increased intergenerational deprivation for one – seems to be a price worth paying under an ideology that reduces government expenditure and transfers money and control to the private sector.

Now rid of Cable, the Tories can push ahead with their idea of a more tightly defined academic system   alongside a larger apprenticeship system, abandoning the middle ground epitomised by the general FE model, which, as evidence in the book shows, did much in the longer term to tackle underachievement resulting from historic failures in the education system. This ideological orientation, underpinned by austerity, provides a new polarising logic. In the new orchestration of FE, professional judgment plays second fiddle to ideology.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, said in an endorsement of the book: “No minister should be allowed to preside over the FE sector before reading and answering questions raised by this book.” Boles certainly needs to reflect on the effects of ever-changing and often contradictory Government policy. More than two decades on from incorporation, how much fundamental change and tinkering do we still need?”

The Coming of Age for FE? reflections on the past and future role of further education colleges in England, edited by Ann Hodgson, IOE Press. ISBN 978-1-78277-123-4

 

 

 

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