Survey points to need for a radical rethink of the approach to further education by the incoming Tory Government

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Policy Consortium member Ian Nash introduces the full report of the second Great FE & Skills Survey, undertaken by the Policy Consortium in conjunction with its media partner FE Week.

The Coalition Government presided over cuts to further education which have proved more damaging than almost anything seen for a generation. This is not the judgment of Opposition parties, but a considered view of more than 700 FE staff, managers and providers responding to the second Great FE & Skills Survey.

A single-minded focus on apprenticeships and the sacrifice of many interests of all other sectors in order to ring-fence school funding for five to 16-year-olds resulted in wholesale reductions in FE and in particular a 40% cut in adult education. The result, highlighted in the 2015 survey has left the sector teetering on the brink of crisis, with rock-bottom morale and uncertainties in funding that have paralysed sensible organisational planning, provision and delivery.

The report of the survey, Take 2: the Pulse of Further Education, is published this week by the Policy Consortium through its media partner FE Week, as further warnings against cuts were issued by many sector leaders. Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges said: “We are deeply concerned that the Conservatives were the only main party not to pledge [in their manifesto] to ring-fence funding for 16 to 18-year-olds. This leaves college students extremely vulnerable to further cuts and we appeal to the Prime Minister to think again before risking the education and training opportunities of thousands of young people.”

Concerns over funding, external bureaucracy, workload and the pace and volume of change top the list of concerns among those polled in the survey. As the government continues to transfer skills funding to employers – despite evidence from employer ownership pilots that it doesn’t work – broader education initiatives with a proven track record have been severely curtailed.

Equally alarming, say survey respondents, despite the ring-fencing of schools cash, is the failure of the Coalition Government to ensure that it is used by them in sufficiently tackling the levels of pupil underachievement in schools. This has left colleges with the unachievable target of bringing everyone up to GCSE A-C or equivalent in maths and English by age 18, with the demand that they “do it again” until they make the grade. Moreover, the reduction in funding means that the sector is perceived as being less important than schools and higher education, say the respondents. The top two concerns around funding and government priorities appear to impact directly on status and morale in sector.

Unnecessary and damaging competition with schools – as the Government’s free schools and other structural reforms take priority over all other considerations – is also a major concern. The proliferation of providers, especially small school sixth forms, was identified by many as a cause for concern both for young people and FE providers, says the survey report. One respondent commented that a “federation of school sixth forms [was created] purely to hold onto students, but this will damage a lot of post 16 learners’ experience with transport, timetable clashes and Key Stage 4 priorities”.

Similarly, with competition to recruit and retain specialist staff, one respondent said: “Some key areas such as English, Maths and Science have major issues recruiting. We are all fighting over the same pool.” Another commented: “It is proving almost impossible to recruit and/or retain Maths teachers, engineering, hi-tech staff [when] pay is so much better in schools and in HE”.

Typical examples of concern expressed were: “Where are we supposed to recruit the required English and maths teachers? Hogwarts perhaps?” This was further exemplified by: “…if you need a GCSE English or maths staff member then you need to be in competition with schools”.

The lack of parity in rates of pay across the school, college and private/voluntary providers is said to be causing difficulty in recruiting staff. ‘Pay is being eroded when compared to school teachers. Workloads are being increased with my job fast becoming a full-time administrator and part-time tutor. Motivation in the whole sector appears at an all-time low.”

When asked specifically about funding levels, almost three-quarters described themselves as “extremely concerned”. When those who were “moderately concerned” were added, the levels of concern overall topped 90% – a 5% increase on the already high level identified in the 2014 survey. One person suggested that the focus on English and maths attainment should be in schools: “Give schools what they need to ensure that no-one leaves school without [an appropriate] level of maths and English.”

This fits with thoughts in the 2014 survey that FE cannot be expected to fix in two years what schools have failed to achieve in eleven years, says the report. “All this curriculum and qualification change is taking place in a time of a reduction in information, advice and guidance.” Many comments indicated that staff in schools who offered careers advice knew little or nothing about the vocational routes or jobs that were available. They were described as predominantly concerned with steering their pupils into their own A-level programmes. One respondent said: “Information advice and guidance delivered in schools varies in availability, quality and appropriateness meaning that young people do not always access the post-16 provision available to them or that meets the needs of the local and national skills priorities. There are too many students doing a year of A-levels and then realising that the vocational route is more appropriate.”

As in 2014, some of the 2015 respondents felt that reliability of inspection judgments was affected by the degree to which Ofsted inspectors lacked a contemporary understanding of the sector: “My one concern is how up-to-date are they (HMIs long out of FE and associates now recruited onto teams) are.” The politicisation of Ofsted also came over strongly in the survey as a cause for concern.

The survey elicited considerable levels of support and concern among sector leaders. Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group, said: “The clear message is that we understand what is being asked of us but that policy – and funding – must match up to the aspirational rhetoric in reality if we are to have the world class skills system we all want.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the national adult learning organisation, NIACE, said: “Over half those surveyed are extremely concerned about the broad government direction of travel for FE and skills and, with three quarters are extremely concerned about levels of funding, that weight of feeling does not suggest a healthy position for FE and we need to fight to improve it.”

There is now even deeper concern that without Liberal Democrat Vince Cable (who suggested last autumn that the Treasury would happily close down FE as it stands, but who lost his seat at the General Election) fighting FE’s corner, things can only get worse. It was generally reckoned that the Tories would have cut even deeper without his intervention and that far greater cuts and even dismemberment will now happen.

It will be interesting to see what difference if any Sajid Javid, Cable’s replacement as Business Secretary and a former student at Filton Technical College (now part of South Gloucestershire and Stroud College) can make to the fortunes of FE.

Ian Nash

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