Checking the pulse – it’s now a question of survival for FE

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Ian Nash summarises views from a selection of respondents interviewed six months on from the annual survey The pulse of further education The Great FE & Skills Survey of 2015.

Rarely has a set of such far-reaching Government reforms been so clearly in danger of unintended and damaging consequences than the latest cuts being imposed on further education.

A range of government initiatives around every policy from the reskilling of young adults to the Prevent policies around counter-terrorism are undermined by cuts to adult basic skills and the funding of low-level qualifications. Exhortations to employers to do more for skills and training are weakened by cuts to key areas of FE and ill-considered policies on Apprenticeship funding.

For many critics – and even supporters – of the Government’s overall budget-cutting strategies, the measures since the General Election and successive 24 per cent and 3.9 per cent cuts to FE spending have more to do with ideology and a frustrated desire to switch money to free schools and academies. Even supporters of the strategy to extend adult loans into FE say the moves are premature and ill-thought-out, destroying opportunities to learn before such policies can take effect.

These, and far wider general concerns over the extent of cuts and direction taken by ministers shaping new policy, were raised by more than 700 respondents to the annual state-of-the-FE-nation annual survey in March (TAKE 2: The pulse of further education The Great FE & Skills Survey of 2015) carried out by the Policy Consortium in association with FE Week.

Six months on, 32 respondents who were representative of the whole group were invited to revisit their concerns in in-depth interviews. What little optimism there was in March has substantially evaporated. Ministers promised greater freedom and less red tape and bureaucracy. Instead, people see new constraints and what appears to be little more than an effort to shift the blame for longer-term cuts and constraints away from the politicians imposing austerity.

There is also a feeling that beyond the narrowest of employment-related targets, politicians no longer care about what becomes of FE. The desire of civil servants to kill off the sector was apparent from the earliest years of the Coalition Government, as the then Business Secretary Vince Cable has since amply described. It was largely his actions, digging his heels in, which prevented far worse damage in the name of austerity than came about between 2010 and 2015.

He was well supported at the start by the FE minister John Hayes who fought resolutely and successfully against Treasury moves to scrap the £210m protected Adult and Community Learning Fund. That money was and still is remarkably successful in assisting the hardest-to-reach learners who had repeatedly failed – or been failed by – the mainstream education service.

On Hayes’ departure from the post, however, the rot soon set in, culminating in the 24 per cent cut to the adult skills budget and dire warnings from the Association of Colleges. In March this year, the AoC predicted:  “Adult education and training in England will not exist by 2020 if the Government continues with its swathe of cuts to the adult skills budget.” A further 3.9 per cent cut followed once the new Government, unfettered by the likes of Cable, was comfortably in office.

What is perhaps most disturbing about the flood of reforms since the election is the failure, or refusal, of politicians to carry out any meaningful impact assessment underpinning decisions or to show clearly how reforms are backed by sound evidence. If there is such evidence, this has not been communicated to the wider FE and skills sector.

For every leader and manager reporting new opportunities and potential growth behind initiatives such as the target for 2020 of 3m Apprenticeship starts, there are many more who see largely curtailment of opportunity and contradiction in conflicting policies. The Apprenticeship drive is a potentially bold and ambitious strategy, but only as part of a well-thought-out array of policies, which the current offering is lacking.

The interviews reveal strong determination at all levels in the sector to provide a professional and effective service in the face of such contradictions and constraints. This was clear from the original survey and remains so. But the decision of ministers to focus austerity cuts on colleges and providers that inevitably deal with the most disadvantaged learners is neither fair nor effective. Moreover, it is of questionable competence.

The AoC warnings were based on solid research showing that at least 190,000 education and training opportunities would be lost as a result of the 24 per cent budget cut. Since then a further 3.9 per cent was imposed, destabilising existing local spending decisions and seeing many more colleges left in a precarious financial state.

Initiative after initiative has been developed piecemeal, on the hoof (with many seemingly worthy reforms cutting across each other). There is irritation among those interviewed in this follow-up to the survey over the latest consultation reports from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, such as the August paper, Apprenticeships levy: employer owned apprenticeships training, which specifically equate commitment to training with involvement in apprenticeships, even though this is patently inappropriate for so many learners.

There is incoherence and contradiction from government around pressing issues such as the wind down of adult education and the end of mandated ESOL, negating wider social cohesion policy. A lack of prior consultation over Apprenticeships means employers, especially small to medium enterprises, will have little real ownership. Nor are reforms likely to increase employer confidence in the sector. Many people in the interviews reported a lack of sufficient and adequately qualified teachers to fulfil Maths and English policy. And, most of all, they say, there can be no coherence in conducting Area Reviews while schools can stand outside.

Business Secretary Vince Cable pointed out in FE Week (September 21 2015) that the whole approach of government is predicated on the assumption that only schools and universities matter.  “You can’t overestimate the extent to which the Civil Service and the establishment generally doesn’t understand FE, doesn’t care about it.”

The “squeezed middle child”, as Sir Andrew Foster described colleges in his inquiry of 2005, continues to get crumbs left behind when schools and universities have had their portion. The sense of deep frustration arising from this was palpable in the interviews carried out for this report. What all participants said in one way or another was, “give us the right vehicle or change the destination because we can’t get where you want like this”.

Click here for a copy of Checking the Pulse – going from bad to worse: Revisiting TAKE 2: The pulse of further education. The Great FE & Skills Survey of 2015

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