Research Networking: looking to the future.


Andrew Morris, a member of the Policy Consortium and co-organiser of the Learning & Skills Research Network, celebrates the 20th anniversary of LSRN. He reports on plans for an overarching structure to link together the various networks involved with research in the sector.

November 2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Learning & Skills Research Network. True to its unchanging mission – championing the use of research – it marked the occasion by preparing for a new phase of life, rather than dwelling on past glories. The Network idea arose originally from a three-day workshop on FE Research, at the FE Staff College in December 1996. This led to the formation of an informal Planning Group and a founding conference in Blackpool in November 1997. Then, as now, the organisational structure was informal, and activity depended on the voluntary contribution of enthusiasts.

Today, as then, LSRN is independent of any funding or policy influence. Its role is to bring together practitioners, researchers, trainers and intermediaries to share, communicate and promote research and the use of evidence in the sector. The Network has survived in a turbulent political environment by adapting to economic and political circumstances whilst remaining true to to its values and purposes. In this spirit, it recently welcomed a forward-looking suggestion about developing a new structure fit for the next decade: some kind of superstructure for the dozens of networks that now engage with research in the sector. The idea was discussed at an LSRN Workshop in November 2017, upon which this paper is based.

The problem this suggestion addresses is that there are many small initiatives, but no organised system, for engaging with research. Interested practitioners don’t know which way to turn for evidence or research support; leaders and policymakers don’t have simple access to evidence on relevant topics. One consequence is that research and use of evidence in the sector are insufficiently funded and fail to achieve the prominence they merit. Fragmentation results in a lack of infrastructure; incoherence in the absence of a strong voice for evidence.


Norman Crowther of the National Education Union, a member of the LSRN Planning Group, has suggested an overarching entity be created, linking to the many current research-related networks. Dubbed a ‘meta-network’ it would be made visible through a joint website which signposts intelligently to participating networks and provides smart communication channels to foster collaboration. Models in various industries offer both inspiration and know-how. The Co-Tech collaboration, for example, includes some 30 organisations and networks in the co-operative movement. A similar collaboration in the post-16 sector might link up research institutes and centres, networks of colleges and training providers, bodies working with employers, academic and teacher education networks, awarding bodies and sector support agencies. Representative from dozens of these participated in the LSRN Workshop.

Benefits and risks

The most immediate benefit of a collaboration system would be to raise awareness of the range of networks and organisations serving research and evidence use and to open-up informal communication channels between them. This alone would raise the profile of research activity and encourage greater use of evidence in decision-making. As relationships develop, synergy between separate research activities is likely to be found, leading to stronger projects and greater impact on practice. Collaborative bidding could follow, leading to more convincing proposals for more substantial and relevant research projects and knowledge mobilisation actions.

In the longer run, were funding to be attracted, tools could be developed collaboratively to facilitate access to evidence, and support for using it, in practical ways suited to teachers, trainers, professional developers and policy analysts.

The idea is not without risks, as was pointed out at the Workshop. Time and energy might be wasted trying to foist a new network on a reluctant sector. The virtues of the established LSRN network might be lost: confidence about its institutional independence and the quality and inclusiveness of its activities. LSRN ‘runs on thin air’, drawing on the voluntary contributions of enthusiastic people. Any new structure would need to attract commitment to the same degree or more if it is to progress beyond current arrangements.


Discussion at the Workshop confirmed the principal purposes of a collaborative ‘meta’ Network: to share information about projects, events, training etc; to help develop a stronger voice for research and evidence and, potentially, to facilitate the development of tools to make evidence more accessible.

The scope needs to be inclusive so that colleges, training providers, universities, adult education centres and offender learning are all involved. It should also look outwards to both practice and policy. The technology will help individual users see the parts that interest them particularly. It could provide forums for discussion, areas for collaborative development of documents, areas that offer links to participating websites and, perhaps later on, some kind of portal to key evidence resources. Face to face activity through regional and national workshops and perhaps local ‘researchmeets’ could be advertised through the website and a newsletter.

A set of commonly held principles would need to be developed and agreed to ensure broad understanding of the basis of the initiative. LSRN began its life in this way with a statement of ‘Values and Purposes’. It has served LSRN well for twenty years and could provide a useful starting point.

Starting up

It was suggested at the Workshop that the initiative could itself be conceived as a Research & Development process: developed and evaluated in stages. The LSRN Planning Group has agreed to set out a staged plan and identify people willing to give a little time to it.  Volunteers will take forward specific issues such as: identifying potential participant networks and organisations; locating website expertise; developing a social media presence. If interest and commitment proves sufficiently strong, LSRN will hold a further workshop to take forward action on these plans. To find out more or get involved, contact me at

Andrew Morris 8th January 2018

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Another ‘T’ level teaser


The Policy Consortium’s Mick Fletcher puzzles over an odd feature of T-Levels: it seems that some of Sainsbury’s technical  routes are more equal than others. 

There are many mysteries about the governments approach to developing ‘T’ levels, the most fundamental of which must be what is meant by the word ‘technical’.  Sometimes it seems to refer to technician level occupations that require sub-degree level qualifications; at other times it is used interchangeably with STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) and at still others seems to mean vocational.  Greater clarity over such a key concept would certainly aid implementation.

Less fundamental but even more baffling is the decision that there will be no T levels developed for four of the technical routes identified by Lord Sainsbury.  Sainsbury ‘expected’ that these routes would be primarily delivered through apprenticeships though neglected to say why.  Government has had at least three formal opportunities to shed light on the issue – in the post-16 skills plan, in the T-level action plan and in the latest consultation paper – but has conspicuously failed to offer any explanation on each occasion.

The wording of the consultation document would however appear to be carefully chosen. It simply observes that ‘The Sainsbury Report suggested … ‘ (emphasis added) that these four routes should be exceptions. That is strictly correct; tellingly Sainsbury didn’t ‘advocate’, ‘argue for’ or ‘explain’ why.  The most likely explanation for the inclusion of the ‘suggestion’ is that somebody other than Sainsbury asked them to add it in, probably late in the day when they were weary and wanted to go home.  But why?

It is hard to deduce anything from the four routes chosen for special treatment – Protective Services, Sales, Social Care and Transport & Logistics.  They are not the smallest routes so it can’t be the case that its not worth the effort of developing a T level for them.  Neither are they the ones where apprenticeships are most strongly established in the public mind – hairdressing, engineering and construction would better meet that test.  Its not really plausible to argue that there are enough young people following the apprenticeship path already, so a college based route is not needed: even if that were true in the past the introduction of the apprenticeship levy is certain to change things in unpredictable ways.

Are they perhaps routes dominated by large firms with lots of levy to be spent?  Its not obvious that they have a higher proportion of big employers than, say, health, manufacturing or education? Are they the most diverse routes, making an overarching T level problematic?  Well not compared to ‘Creative and Design’ or ‘Health’.  Is there any special reason that makes them more difficult to deliver in college?  Its hard to argue that finance managers can be trained in college but not marketing managers; or that colleges can deliver childcare but not social care.

It may be a mystery, but does it matter?  It certainly does to young people who are denied a choice of learning setting should they wish to work towards a career in those sectors denied a T level option.  More importantly their chances of a technical education in their chosen field depend entirely on whether employers in their local area choose to recruit an apprentice in that year.  One of the benefits of a college based route is that it can iron out fluctuations in opportunities arising from the business cycle and help address regional gaps in provision.

It matters also to employers that there is a relatively stable supply of qualified applicants in their sectors. If firms are unable to train in a downturn they are likely to find a skill shortage when business picks up. The college route plays an important counter-cyclical role in relation to skills supply.

Finally it matters to all concerned if there is a serious drop in capacity in the FE system.  If colleges shed staff and facilities because only T levels and A levels will be funded; and if awarding bodies similarly retrench as qualifications cease to be fundable it will be difficult to respond should the requisite number of apprenticeships fail to appear.  What is the fall-back position in this perfectly plausible scenario?

DfE appear to be about to take a big risk with the future for young people, colleges and employers.  At the very least they should set out why.

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How not to manage a market


The Policy Consortium’s Mick Fletcher casts his eye over the current Government’s skills policy.

The core problem with government skills policy is that it is ultimately founded on a deceit.  The claim is that employers are in the driving seat.  In practice however all it means is that government has chosen to manage a pseudo-market by manipulating employers rather than manipulating providers.  I’ve made this point before (see FE Week 22/04/14) but now some of the perverse consequences of this shift are becoming more apparent.

Manipulation, or as ESFA would prefer to say ‘adjusting the incentives to employers’ is necessary because not every outcome of an unfettered market would be acceptable to government.  Since we are talking about public money (remember even the apprenticeship levy is a tax) this is right and proper.  It underlines the point however that, like bus drivers, employers may turn the wheel but they are not free to fix the destination.

Trying to steer the system by tweaking incentives to employers rather than incentives to providers is problematic. Firstly there are perhaps 100,000 employers compared with around 1,000 skills providers; and employers are much more variable.  Gauging their response to any stimulus will be tricky.  More importantly, colleges and other providers are well used to reading the signals from government and responding quickly; it is their core business and they can’t afford to get it wrong.  For most employers, managing government funded training is a marginal activity; even those who engage fully have nowhere near as much at stake.

The task for ESFA seems akin to entering an unfamiliar shower. An initial cautious turn on hot produces no effect; one turns further, then further still until suddenly its scalding; whereupon one frantically reverses, overshoots and is numbed with cold.  One can expect dramatic swings around any policy objective as first ESFA undershoots, then overcompensates.

Beyond the target of 3 million starts however, which most sensible stakeholders are seeking to downplay, it is not clear what outcomes the government seeks.  Would it be content for example to see the numbers of 16 and 17-year-old apprentices fall as some suggest is probable? Does it have a view on the balance of opportunities by region, by sector or by level?  Is it concerned about opportunities for those with learning difficulties or disabilities; or imbalances by gender?  It may suit DfE to be vague on these points for now (after all if you don’t have a target you can’t miss it) but hard questions will increasingly be asked.

Assuming some clarity on priorities emerges from DfE it is still not clear how incentivising employers might work.  Under the old system, to incentivise providers to focus on young people, ESFA could increase the rate they pay for them.  In the new system increasing the amount employers have to pay out of a limited levy pot for a young apprentice could have the opposite effect.  Furthermore the answer is not as simple as just reversing the lever: cutting the rate for young people sharply might enable employers to pay for more out of their pot but they could find that there are no providers willing to do the work.

The underlying problem here is that the ideological obsession with market theory leads government to downplay the very important role that a stable and well supported network of providers can play.  Any sensible system should be built around institutions that want to do the right thing because of their mission, not because they can spot an opportunity for a quick profit. Moreover, a network of colleges, rooted in and answerable to their communities, is far more likely to deliver what is needed locally than a bunch of opportunist providers seeking to second guess employers’ responses to government sticks and carrots informed by imperfect data and a few soundbite priorities.

Winston Churchill once said that you could always rely on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after first exhausting every other possible option.  It sounds a little like DfE apprenticeship policy.


This article originally appeared as a blog for NCFE in October 2017

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The Perils of Public Procurement


Policy Consortium member Mick Fletcher discusses some of the risks of creating a ‘pseudo-market’ in FE. This article first appeared as a blog on the NCFE website. 

Two big stories have surfaced in the FE press in recent weeks. One concerns the complex and convoluted process introduced by the ESFA to determine how public funding for those apprenticeships not covered by the levy will be allocated. Commentators and sector representatives have expressed increasing alarm fearing that colleges and other providers will be destabilised and the ultimate losers will be potential apprentices. Those not up to speed with the issue can find a good account by Nick Linford on the NCFE blog so the details are not repeated here.

The other story, which broke only recently, concerns Somerset Skills and Learning (SSL), the dominant provider of adult education in the county, which until now has offered hundreds of courses to thousands of students. After its extensive programme had been advertised, staff and students recruited and premises booked, it learned at the very last minute that its funding allocation had been cut by an astonishing 97%. I must declare an interest: I have paid fees up front to an organisation that is now threatened with bankruptcy and the need to sack hundreds of staff; it is not just my ability to learn Italian but also my hard-earned cash that is threatened.

Somerset Skills and Learning had only recently been graded Good by Ofsted so its quality was not in doubt. The apparent reason for the loss of funding is that Somerset County Council, seeking to shed itself of everything other than its inescapable statutory duties, had offloaded its adult education service into a community interest company in 2015. This meant that rather than have its grant renewed SSL was thrown into the chaotic and unpredictable procurement process run by the ESF for private providers. Like the process for non-levy apprenticeship funding this is also running dangerously late – hence the last-minute surprise.

These two cases are not the only evidence that the procurement process introduced by the ESFA is not fit for purpose. The struggling non-levy exercise is the second attempt this year to make progress on apprenticeship allocations. Earlier still there was an outcry when several well established providers failed to make it onto the register of approved organisations for apprenticeship funding, while at the same time untried outfits with no track record (and in some cases no staff and no premises) were accepted. Meanwhile many third sector providers are complaining that the procurement exercise for the Adult Education Budget risks marginalising many small organisations that have worked successfully with disadvantaged communities.

Forcing the provision of public services to be driven through bids and tenders is based on an ideological conviction that markets always produce the best outcomes; a conviction blindly adhered to in spite of growing evidence that it is not true. A bidding process centralises power in the hands of those who invite the tender and judge submissions. A procurement process that is obsessed with allowing new entrants to a market is necessarily blind to the track record of those who bid. This means that contracts will often go to those who employ the slickest bid writers rather than those who invest in high quality delivery. It unintentionally prioritises those who scent large profits to be made rather than those driven by an ideal of service; anyone who doubts this need simply look at the outcomes, not just in FE but areas such as the Work programme, the Probation Service or in prisons.

This is not to deny the benefits of competition in many services. It is however to say that the creation of a pseudo-market, where bureaucrats create convoluted processes to try to mimic real competition, carries major risks. Furthermore there is another way. It is possible to create and sustain institutions that have independent democratic oversight and a long term commitment to public service. It is possible to have staff who pursue quality because of their professional values rather than being manipulated by league tables. We know it is possible because it is what they have in other countries and indeed what we had until the market fetishists forced their ideology on areas of life where they don’t properly belong.

In a not unrelated area people are now looking at the crippling debts imposed on services by the Private Finance Initiative and asking, “How could we have been so foolish?” How much longer will it be before we feel the same about the ‘procurement’ of skills?


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Is it time for an end to personality politics and the FE sector?


14 June 2017

Tony Davis, member of the Policy Consortium asks: should the Department for Education be set free from government control?


Depending on where you draw your line in history, you could argue that we’ve been providing formal education and training for around 2500 years. During that time, countless men and women have dedicated their whole lives to perfecting the art of teaching. This art form has a continuum from the micro to the macro – from working with an individual learner to designing a nation’s whole education landscape in which that teacher works. The question is: do we now know how to do it?

While every learner is different, chaos theory might enable us to say that the types of learners we are presented with each year fall into very similar categories, from those with distinct barriers to independent learning right up to those find learning almost effortless. The skills needed to deal with all of these learners, however, are honed, not just over a lifetime, but over generations. We’ve all paid our dues. The architects of our nation’s education system, however, have not.

Since 1945, the post of Secretary of State for Education (or equivalent) has been held by 36 MPs; 20 Conservative, and 16 Labour. Undoubtedly, all had strong ideas about what was best for the FE & Skills sector at the start of their tenure. All wanted to make their mark. All wanted to change the system so that their mark could be seen. The inescapable impact is a destabilised sector that is not allowed to grow – just yoyo.

Currently, we don’t even warrant a whole minister, as Justine Greening, who has previously been tried in the departments of Transport and then International Development, is required to split her time between Education and Women and Equalities. She’s an economist. Gove was a journalist.

Are you happy with this situation? Swathes of subjects undermined by Gove. Assessment regimes changed at the drop of a hat? Policy decisions taken with no thought to the unintended consequences? Ofsted’s Chief Inspector wanting the dissolution of the FE sector? Oh, and what’s the latest hobbyhorse? Grammar schools; producing elitism and sink schools, but not in equal measure?

In 1997, Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England independence from political control. The experts were allowed to get on with the job, while simply being accountable to government. Do you think this is what should happen to Education?

The 2017 FE National Survey, run by the Policy Consortium in association with the TES, is where you can have your say. This is not a talking shop, it’s your chance to influence the whole context in which you work. We’ve had a great response so far, but would like to extend the survey deadline to the 30th of June to ensure that all parts of our varied sector have a chance to contribute. Just 15 minutes of your time could change our world.


Contact: Tony Davis

Tony Davis is a member of the Policy Consortium, a former Ofsted HMI and director of the Centre for Creative Quality Improvement.

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FE and Skills Survey 2016


The full, final report on the sector-wide 2016 survey of FE and Skills, produced by members of the Policy Consortium, explores the views of people with an interest in the FE sector on a range of relevant topics from government policy to teaching resources, curriculum change to staff morale, partnerships to inspection. The sample of 731 respondents is much the same as for the 2015 survey , with which comparisons are made. Institutional and learner funding are again the top two areas of concern.

See the full report: Survey 2016 report

A summary of key points from the report is available in this Powerpoint presentation by Mike Cooper and Nick Warren, given at the 2016 FE Week Festival of Skills. Presentation on the survey report 

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Merger: a new emotional landscape


 Mergers are happening all over the sector at the moment. In the first of a series of guest blogs Tom Jupp – former Principal of City and Islington College – reflects on his experience of creating the college out of four separate institutions and on his subsequent experience of other mergers. City and Islington College is now merging into a group structure with Westminster-Kingsway.


Make no mistake, when you step into a newly merging institution, you step into a new landscape. It’s a place where emotions run high and the weight of rationality and logic become diminished; a land where many people feel boundaries have dissolved; the future is foggy and the ground is moving under their feet. A place where people feel anxious, disorientated and experience a sense of loss and even grief. One indicator of all this is when people start saying, ’This isn’t a merger, it’s a takeover.’ Another is that anger wells to the surface quickly and inappropriately.

Two important points. Firstly, all this is normal and should be planned for as an important aspect of leadership through a merger. I certainly wasn’t ready for it and took too long to accept and work with it. It’s natural to see your role instead as one offering a firm and unwavering direction in this emotional and uncertain atmosphere; it’s tempting to tell people to be sensible or even shut up. Or, even worse, to disengage from the all this and work on organisational matters. The emotional temperature is high and this puts extra pressure on the leaders as well, but it cannot be ignored. Everyone is also looking for effective and strong leadership which they can trust.

Secondly, the leadership agenda in a merger is, for many, the problem and not the solution. The senior management agenda is about things like  setting up group-wide business support services; establish a group management structure; saving money; examining curriculum areas; reducing buildings: and all this in the context of a very uncertain future for FE. The problem is that this urgent organisational agenda for management is perceived by many as only having arisen because of the merger. You can argue much would have had to happen anyway, but lots of people don’t ‘feel’ this is really true.

There are a lot of things which need to be done urgently as a new college. But the trust required to do them has to be earned in a sceptical atmosphere. Leadership in this context calls for a lot of emotional intelligence, which I didn’t always show. I needed to think deeply and articulate the educational purposes for which I wanted to do this job. But you mustn’t do this on your own; you need to articulate these educational purposes in collaboration with other people who are positive about the new opportunities and, in the process, build a leadership team. The purposes of the new Group mergers are likely to be simple: to give students across the colleges a uniformly high quality experience; to develop and expand specialisms and to preserve the pluralism of the component parts. Educational purposes have to be clear and they have to be repeated consistently by all leaders face to face with everyone. But above all these educational purposes have to be shown to clearly relate to the operational decisions and changes that are introduced.  In the end, it all comes down to building trust and demonstrating consistency and there is no short cut to this.

It’s difficult. I needed strategies to engage in conversations, which would be on staff terms and not about organisational changes; I decided on classroom visits and lunches to talk to teachers and students about them and their teaching and learning. These conversations were very different from the endless discussions of change and college organisation. People react so differently in discussion of their own work. This was my personal answer. It is only an illustration of how you can find a context where you can be relaxed and professionally authentic: this was a natural choice for me because I had many years experience of visiting classrooms and always enjoyed it. The purpose is to find a context in which people genuinely feel they are being ‘heard’.

So building trust and respect is one big dimension of effective leadership, building it up around shared purposes with all staff. Another important dimension is the recognition that effective leadership depends on context: the context of culture and continuity. For example, Westminster-Kingsway and City and Islington have different cultures and different senses of what is essential to continuity. And the intention of a College Group is to keep things this way. Each college will have a strong conviction that the college’s ‘way of doing things’ (ie culture) is ‘right’. In any Group merger it would be very interesting and useful for the two management teams to share their views on their respective cultures. There will often be a residue of not altogether positive assumptions about each other which need to be questioned. Talking about these things can be useful for everyone in key leadership roles and is also essential for the business support services staff who will need to work across the Group.

College cultures do not change quickly whatever you do. And within whole college cultures, there are a whole series of smaller and more local cultures related to curriculum and courses. All leaders at whatever level, particularly if they are working across the Group, have to be sensitive to all this and must find ways to work with it. One approach is to recognise and celebrate the distinctive things of the past and present    – cultivate continuity – and always make clear what you are committed to keeping and developing. The principle that you ‘don’t fix it unless it is broken’ needs to be remembered in a merger. Sometimes the logic of change should be resisted and the strong decision is not to change. All change costs, not only in time and energy, but also in possible lost opportunity. In other words, emotional intelligence is not just interpersonal; it has also to be applied to strategic change both in terms of pace and direction.

Is there a straight forward answer to leadership in this emotional and uncertain landscape?  I don’t think so! But you can consciously share feelings and experience within teams and not fear that doing so shows weakness.

And here are some starting suggestions for issues to discuss in different components of a newly merging group of colleges as events unroll:

  • Put emotional intelligence on the agenda. Talk about how things are going from this point of view.
  • Bear in mind that real change is an evolutionary process in education not a revolutionary one
  • Make sure that everyone is clear what the educational purposes of the new organisation are.
  • Don’t tire of meeting, talking and arguing; believe in communication.
  • Practise devolved leadership and management
  • Ask yourselves:
    • how do we avoid becoming too inward focussed; how do we retain an outward focus?
    • how do we keep teaching and learning still top of the agenda?

Tom Jupp, 13th June 2016


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


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:



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Hard evidence, not anecdote, please, Chief Inspector


Policy Consortium member Ian Nash reflects on Sir Michael Wilshaw’s recent remarks about FE and points to the need for those in positions of influence to have regard for the evidence.

Why should Suffolk colleges hand over hundreds of post-16 students to Lowestoft school sixth forms when four out of five schools there are in special measures? The same question could be asked in many towns and regions across England.

While Lowestoft College may ‘require improvement’, according to an Ofsted report of 2013, steady progress is now being made. Meanwhile, much FE provision across the county is ‘outstanding’ and thus in many cases, arguably, superior to nearby schools.

Travel 140 miles south-west from Suffolk to London and you might expect the debate to be more clear-cut. The London Challenge launched by Labour in 2003 was so successful that record numbers of 16-year-olds now stay on in school sixth forms after getting a fistful of GCSEs at grades  A*-C. However, when it comes to making A-level choices, too many students founder, and do so for multiple reasons. Careers education is inadequate; vocational education is lacking; subjects pursued are often inappropriate; and sixth forms are too small to provide full choice. Students hit a brick wall. Colleges are then left to clean up the mess.

None of this was addressed in Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw’s disparaging pre-Easter remarks about further education, when he suggested all 16 to 19-year-olds should be in school.

Nor could a subsequent Policy Consortium investigation find any substantial evidence to support his remarks – which, in any case, were readily dismissed by Skills Minister Nick Boles at the Commons Education Select Committee. He said: “…not only do I disagree with him, not only does David Cameron disagree with him, I actually think Michael disagrees with himself.”

Even Wilshaw’s own press office refused to offer evidence to support him. A spokesperson for the education watchdog had previously said that Sir Michael’s comments “were clearly his personal opinion” and that they had nothing more to add. To add to the case against Wilshaw, Mark Dawe used his maiden speech as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) CEO-elect to say that Wilshaw “needs to retire before he does any more damage to our education system and the economic well-being of this country.”

While no-one pretends FE is anywhere near perfect, Wilshaw’s refusal to back his remarks with evidence leaves him looking at best unprofessional and at worst mendacious. There is after all considerable evidence either in support of colleges as a destination of choice or that raise questions about sixth forms. This evidence centres on at least seven issues:

  • the breadth of choice FE colleges offer compared with school sixth forms
  • overall Ofsted grades and the relative performance of colleges – given the number of schools with sixth forms in need of improvement, would a responsible college really stop taking students?;
  • employer satisfaction rates (from UKCES) with college-leavers, at 71%, as  compared with school counterparts, at 61%;
  • the poor patterns of University Technical College recruitment which, nationally, is at least 40 per cent down on target – despite Wilshaw talking up UTCs, FE colleges are still a preferred destination;
  • the lack of separate grades for school sixth forms, with which to make fair and meaningful comparisons and to challenge ill-founded assumptions;
  • the high degree of churn in sixth-forms, particularly in London, with colleges coming to the rescue;
  • and criticisms from Baroness Professor Alison Wolf herself that school sixth forms are too ill-equipped and badly-staffed to offer the technical education that colleges do well. The Coalition government’s cherry-picking of Professor Wolf’s review of 14-19 qualifications has damaged post-16 provision.

Why does the negative commentary from Wilshaw matter? Shouldn’t it just be left to fade away? After all, to adapt broadcaster Robin Day’s words to Defence Secretary John Nott in a TV interview during the Falklands war in 2002, “Why should we heed the words of a [soon-to-be] ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, official?” Wilshaw retires in December, remember, if indeed he is not put out to grass earlier than that.

It matters for the simple reason that ministers take much policy steer from the Ofsted boss – however flippant Boles was over his FE remarks – and often use such views to underpin ideological-based assertions where educational arguments fail for lack of genuine evidence.

Two pressing areas where this has become only too obvious very recently are the planned mass academisation of schools, and the decision to cease grading TLA (teaching, learning and assessment) when inspectors assess performance.

First, the academisation drive now includes the idea that strong schools taking over weak ones would be accompanied by a long moratorium on inspection grades and reports, to “allow room with reduced pressure”. If this comes off, there will be a long period before we have valid data with which to compare any schools in such an academy take-over situation with colleges.

This raises further questions around the current Area-Based Reviews and the desire of ministers to see mergers and the creation of bigger colleges. Will a similar moratorium apply in FE and the general drive to deal with apparently under-performing colleges? Or is this exclusively about forcing all schools down the academy route, regardless of the educational merits?

Second, there is the plan to cease the separate grading by inspectors of teaching, learning and assessment (TLA), with a concomitant increased emphasis on outcomes-related data rather than observation during inspections. College principals, managers and staff told the Policy Consortium that they welcome this – but provided that college inspections are mirrored by the same approach in schools. This raises questions about what data is collected on what topics, with what degrees of reliability, comparability and impact.

Past performance here does not bode well, rather ironically. Ofsted can always argue that inspections are based on policy set out by the government departments – but are they making consistent decisions across each of their remits in the complex and multi-layered world of education, training and skills? Numerous bodies including the Association of Colleges, teacher unions, provider organisations and university researchers argue that they do not. Martin Doel, AoC chief executive, summed up such concerns, saying: “When it comes to proper comparability, Ofsted is neither consistent nor fair in judgment.”

The Government’s own evidence underlines his point. For example, DFE data on class size recently highlighted how small group-size sixth-forms perform worse, on average, than oversized ones. This led to a review of class-size criteria last year. In schools, but not colleges, small sixth-forms are often subsidised by protected pre-16 budgets. In some cases, too, the lower-school Peter is robbed in order to pay the sixth-form Paul.

Similarly, as the AoC points out, despite the hype for UTCs from the Government and Wilshaw, it is still too early to say how well they perform. There have been few inspections of UTCs and they are still in the experimental stage.

When it comes to the question of which institutions serve disadvantaged learners best, colleges are clear winners, as recent research for BIS by the University of Greenwich shows  ( Data on social mobility shows that it is FE that does the heavy lifting. This is most pronounced in London where higher achievement leads too often to narrow post-16 choice. That’s fine if you want an academic route, say the authors; but for the vocationally-inclined learner, it is “inappropriate”. In addition to their exemplary work with the mainstream of both vocational and academic learners, colleges play a specially-important role for disadvantaged students left behind by schooling.

Finally, on the issue of careers and destinations, Wilshaw’s assumptions in favour of schools are based on little of substance. The only inspection evidence base he has is the 2013 Ofsted report on careers guidance in schools, where three out of four schools surveyed “were not implementing their duty to provide impartial careers advice effectively”.

The priority now has to be to move on from the realms of wild anecdote and ask as a nation how fairly we support the 844,000 16 to 19-year-olds who choose to go to FE college. This is an issue that matters more than – and will outlast – any ‘here-today, gone-tomorrow’ individual appointed as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

Ian Nash is a freelance journalist, member of the Policy Consortium and partner in the media group Nash&Jones Partnership

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Student Services and the Localism Agenda


The Policy Consortium’s Mick Fletcher outlines aspects of student services that need to be taken into consideration as responsibility for skills is devolved to local areas.

It is increasingly clear that responsibility for ‘skills’ is to be devolved to local areas even though the definition of skills in this context is curiously and damagingly constrained; in practice it seems restricted to that part of the Skills Funding Agency budget that is not being switched into student loans or underpinned by the apprenticeship levy. Nevertheless it is a game changer for FE colleges: they will need to develop a new relationship with local authorities and negotiate a new range of opportunities and threats. Despite the fears of many in colleges of a return to the days of local authority control the move could well be positive.

One aspect of college work that has not featured strongly in the debate until now has been the future of student services, that vital but increasingly constrained set of support functions that relate to the student as a person. Student services provide individual advice and counselling, offer financial and practical support and oversee a range of activities that contribute to social cohesion and wellbeing including action to counter the growth of violent extremism. It is important that in seeking to align the college offer with the enthusiasms of local LEPs this vital function is not overlooked.

In developing a strategy for student services in the context of localism there are at least five areas that need to be considered.

1. Careers information, advice and guidance. Closer working between LEPs, local authorities and colleges ought to provide an opportunity for the better articulation of local employment needs, both in terms of the types of jobs available locally and the skills that they require. The collapse of local careers services has left a void that schools cannot fill and an opportunity for colleges to act as the key source of CIAG for young people. The challenge will be to maintain an impartial service, focussed on the student rather than necessarily the aspirations of individual employers and one that recognises students can have ambitions that take them outside their immediate locality.

2. Financial Support. There is a short term risk to financial support since discretionary funds will be included in the budget to be commissioned locally and not ring-fenced. It may also be the case that demand will grow if area reviews lead to greater specialisation as government hopes: someone will have to support access to higher professional and technical training at National Colleges or Institutes of Technology. On the positive side local responsibility for transport could enable local partners to support student travel (as currently in London for example) There is scope for increased use of local Compacts whereby employers can support access to training in skill shortage areas or, for example, agree to pay off student loans for those training in local priority areas.

3. Access & Progression. A priority for local partnerships should be the development of coherent pathways between school and work or HE with a particular focus on those with disabilities or who need extra time to succeed. While the fragmentation of the school system presents a danger it also releases local authorities from responsibilities for running schools and positions them as champions of students: in this latter role they are more natural allies of colleges.

4. Social Cohesion. While the ‘Prevent’ agenda has added a new formal role in respect of social cohesion the cuts in funding for enrichment threaten to undermine activities that have made colleges a safe and neutral space for people of different backgrounds to mix naturally. Local actors are likely to have a better understanding of this than Whitehall, and while local authorities have suffered cuts they still retain responsibility for local sport and recreation services and have a strong interest in promoting cohesion. Community Education will be integrated into the new, devolved Adult Education Budget (AEB) offering scope for new collaborations.

5. Wellbeing. The cuts to enrichment have reduced the capacity of colleges to contribute to the wellbeing agenda through, for example promoting sport & healthy recreation. There is however a strong alignment of interest with local authorities which in devolved areas are likely to have an increased role at the intersection of health and social care. College capacity, in areas such as counselling, and the known benefits of adult learning make FE a powerful player in this area.

Much of the discussion around the devolution of skills has to date focussed on labour market information and the needs of employers. While this is undeniably important there is a need to balance it with an equal focus on the needs, aspirations and circumstances of students.

A shorter version of this post first appeared on the LTE website



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