Learning & Skills Research Network (LSRN) at BELMAS conference

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Policy Consortium member Colin Forrest presented a paper at the July 2018 Windsor conference of BELMAS (British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society).

Entitled: The evolution of the Learning and Skills Research Network it explored LSRN’s 20 years of fostering the interplay of research evidence between policy makers, administrators, sector leaders and other practitioners. It also looked to the future, in the form of the ‘networking the networks’ initiative, led by LSRN. This is developing a stronger platform for communicating about research in the sector by linking up the many separate networks and organisations involved in research and the use of evidence. It will raise awareness of the various networks and organisations serving research in the sector and make it easier for people to identify and access ones of relevance to them. Over time, it is expected this will help foster collaboration and innovation.

Colin’s Powerpoint presentation is here: The evolution of the Learning and Skills Research Network

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FE & Skills System

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The FE & Skills System: a study by the Policy Consortium

In 2017, The Policy Consortium set out to study one fundamental question:

Are the Further Education and Skills policy makers and stakeholders creating the conditions for success or failure?

We asked the sector, through a national survey, if key stakeholders were making it easier or harder to produce outstanding outcomes for all learners. We then asked respondents to identify which policy changes had helped or hindered their ability to be successful. In response, the sector has given a level of clarity not seen before in our studies. To our fundamental question, their simple answer was: ‘No.’ In the view of respondents, the conditions for success in the sector are not present.

This summary study looks at the policy decisions providers feel are contributing most significantly to any perceived failure in the sector, and considers why conditions that support success are not being created.

The report then sets out a vision of how the current situation can be rectified by developing a sector in which all stakeholders systematically work together to create the conditions for success, from Parliament to provider.

Each section of the report concludes with a hypothesis about the root-cause issues that have prevented the conditions for success from being created effectively in the sector, resulting in recommendations for policy makers. A summary of adverse symptoms, root-cause issues and recommendations can be found in section 12, page 45.

Report and Comments

The report was published on April 26th, 2018. A flipbook version can be viewed using the link below: http://resources.ccqi.org.uk/flipbook/PCStudy/index.html

A pdf version is available here: The FE & Skills System – a study by The Policy Consortium.._

 

A second flipbook is a collection of reviews of the study by 14 of the sector’s expert commentators. Please feel free to use these comments to support dissemination of the study and its findings through your own networks.

http://resources.ccqi.org.uk/flipbook/FEandSkillsStudyComments/index.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reaction to the discussion event

Press coverage of the launch event included:

Education Journal- article in Education Journal by Ian Nash on page 10.

AoCjobsa Secret Lecturer article 

Discussion event

The report, based on a recent survey of professionals working in the sector, was discussed at an event on 26th April 2018 at the Campaign for Learning offices in Westminster. 

Click here for an overview of discussions at the event

Speakers included the report author Tony Davis, Gordon Marsden MP (shadow minister for F&HE and Skills) and Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government. If you would like to join with the Policy Consortium in taking forward the messages of this report, please contact Tony Davis at tony@ccqi.org.uk

 

 

        Tony Davis                      Gordon Marsden MP  

     Catherine Haddon

 

Expert Comments

Comments from experts who have reviewed the report are given below.

Headlines

Professor Anne-Marie Bathmaker, University of Birmingham

The report makes for salutary reading, but the overall message of a long-term sustainable relationship between policy and practice is vital. There is a clear message that robust, constructive and enabling structures are imperative, but that those working in the sector experience the opposite.

Alison Birkinshaw, Principal, York College

This is a well-researched report with very clear messages for all involved in the FE and Skills landscape. Two themes emerge for me:  the need for policy initiatives to be evidence based and properly tested before implementation, and the difficulties caused by the underfunding of the sector when introducing any new policies.

Mark Dawe, CEO, Association of Employment and Learning Providers 

This report is right to point to the dangers to sustainable quality improvement that unintended consequences of reform can bring.  A longer term strategic approach would assist providers in making their investment decisions for improving quality

Baroness Sue Garden, Liberal Democrat spokesperson, House of Lords 

This report is very important. The churn in government policy makers/ministers who arrive with their own agendas has been very damaging.  I felt this as a teacher, long before I was involved with politics. You will be doing teaching a great service if you can persuade incoming Ministers to listen and learn!

Mike Hopkins, Principal, Sussex Downs College

This study of the FE and Skills System conducted by The Policy Consortium, should be required reading for Ministers, politicians, officials, policy makers, practitioners and those interested in the FE system.

Professor Ewart Keep, Director, Centre on Skills, Knowledge & Organisational Performance, Department of Education, Oxford University.

This is an excellent piece of work, which provides a view of the problems identified in the Institute for Government’s All Change report from the other end of the telescope, demonstrating how the policy process fails practitioners and the learners they are working with.

Oliver Newton, Director of Policy and Research, Edge Foundation

This study continues the excellent work of City & Guilds’ Sense & Instability reports in highlighting the challenges that a state of perpetual revolution brings to the skills landscape.

Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary, TUC

As this new report highlights, the FE and skills system in England has to endure an endless cycle of reform and this volatility is not in the interests of learners or providers. We need long-term funding commitments, and a collaborative approach by employers and unions to addressing the skills needs of young people and adult learners

Professor Kevin Orr, University of Huddersfield

The report is excellent and chilling. I was left bitter at the utter waste of time and effort identified, time and again in relation to policy and inspection. The report identifies specific root causes for negative impact. A persistent theme is how the volatility of government policy for the FE sector has had unintended but persistently damaging consequences.

Michael Osbaldeston, Special Adviser and Skills Ambassador, City & Guilds Group

Our Sense and Instability report showed the constant flux in the skills world, the lack of consistency, initiative overload (just one more!) – all of which is borne out by this report too.  The evidence is compelling.  We don’t have to create new institutions: we just have to provide the ones we have with enough stability to get on with the job!”

Dame Ruth Silver, President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership

This report engages the sector in a way that is constructive and highly revealing. It explores the negative impact constant change has on the management and delivery of provision and offers a vision for how that context can be improved to be more conducive to successful, long-term policymaking for the sector.

Geoff Stanton, Commentator on FE and Skills

This is an important report.  It contains accounts from the front line of more than one badly judged government initiative being forced on colleges without sufficient notice to the detriment of the learners. To add insult to this injury, colleges are then penalised by Ofsted and the funding agency for not making it work in time, to the wider detriment of the service colleges provide. It requires “action this day”!

 

Full comments

Professor Anne-Marie Bathmaker, University of Birmingham

What is very apparent in the report is that the policies, structures and organisations that are in place for the FE and Skills sector in England are hugely problematic for those who work in the sector. There is a clear message that robust, constructive and enabling structures are imperative, but that those working in the sector experience the opposite. They report inspection systems that are based on questionable snapshot judgements, using criteria that have been imported from school practices and often bear no relation to conditions in the FE and Skills sector; regular changes of focus for teaching and learning, requiring all subjects to focus on ever-changing priorities, that have tenuous links to the substantive subject matter and skills of particular learning pathways; policymakers, inspectors, consultants and others who have no deep or robust understanding of the sector and its work; endemic policy change for no obvious purpose, including the recent area reviews, introduction of the new technical education reforms, and removal of requirement for a teaching qualification.

Underlying all this is chronic underfunding, along with the requirement to constantly bid for additional short-term funding to have any chance of survival, that is time-consuming and serves no helpful purpose except causing distraction and uncertainty.

The mismatch between the fields of policy and practice evidenced in the report suggests a huge divide, that is enormously difficult to address, not least because the people and organisations overseeing and controlling the sector from outside change and move on so regularly that every attempt has to start afresh, often after only months. The policy busyness that brings in yet more reforms, which are only new because the same solution implemented previously has been conveniently forgotten, avoids getting down to the crucial work required, that is emphasised in the report, of establishing and maintaining long-term committed relationships that can work to improve the sector. The evidence in this report emphasises the scale and effects of what has been happening for many, many years, and points to almost wilful practices at policy level, turning the FE and Skills sector into a convenient scapegoat, that policymakers do not care to really engage with. I am reminded of Ewart Keep’s words from 2006, where he described state control of the English education and training system as ‘playing with the biggest train set in the world’. It’s time to stop playing, and to start taking an interest in a sector that plays a crucial role in the education and training of the population, not least the overlooked 50%, who are under-served by school and university provision.

 

 

Alison Birkinshaw, Principal, York College

This is a well-researched report with very clear messages for all involved in the FE and Skills landscape. Two themes emerge for me:  the need for policy initiatives to be evidence based and properly tested before implementation, and the difficulties caused by the underfunding of the sector when introducing any new policies. The key messages around the English and maths funding condition are clear, and there is a comprehensive set of recommendations which deserves careful consideration by all interested parties

 

Mark Dawe, CEO, Association of Employment and Learning Providers 

While we wouldn’t necessarily throw our weight behind the creation of a new body, AELP strongly supports a cross sector approach to formulating a long term strategy for FE and skills, although the government is genuinely trying, for example, to construct a framework for T Levels which won’t conflict with the apprenticeship reforms.  We have actually been calling for such an approach for two years. ‘Despite all the recent changes to apprenticeships, the Chief Inspector has confirmed that 80% of new apprentices are receiving good or outstanding training but this report is right to point to the dangers to sustainable quality improvement that unintended consequences of reform can bring.  A longer term strategic approach would assist providers in making their investment decisions for improving quality

 

Baroness Sue Garden, Liberal Democrat spokesperson, House of Lords

This report is very important – congratulations on your work. It reflects very many of the issues which we Liberal Democrats have been promoting.

I entirely agree that ‘It appears that the single biggest barrier to creating the conditions needed for wholehearted investment by staff is policy makers continually changing their minds.’  The churn in government policy makers/ministers who arrive with their own agendas has been very damaging.  I felt this as a teacher, long before I was involved with politics.  In Michael Gove’s team during coalition. I regularly asked him to consult teachers.  You will be doing teaching a great service if you can persuade incoming Ministers to listen and learn!

Anti FE prejudice of previous Head of Ofsted [ Sir Michael Wilshaw]. Using Poor English and maths results as a stick to beat FE despite the national scandal of secondary school learners leaving school without D or above in GCSE in English and maths.’  There are hopes that Ofsted is now in more FE-friendly hands.

‘Insistence that GCSEs are the only qualifications that are suitable as a passport to vocational and higher qualifications instead of investing in the rigour and effectiveness of functional skills.’  For work-based skills, maths and English should always be functional rather than academic.  It is pointless cruelty to insist on all young people passing GCSE subjects when their skills and talents may lie elsewhere.  Some of our most brilliant craft and technical people may be useless at GCSE.

‘By far the biggest concern with ESFA, expressed by nearly two-thirds of respondents, is the inability to provide learners with high-quality learning programmes as a result of the reduction in funding. In addition, some respondents report that they can no longer recruit learners to the programme of study most suitable to their needs and abilities due to the complete removal of funding from the course components they need. Similarly, policy changes around the funding of low-level provision and high-needs learners is preventing providers from creating the scaffolding structures needed for these learners to progress.’  Funding is currently not fit for purpose.  Hopefully the government’s intention to review post 18 will be an opportunity for real changes to funding.

‘League tables are not in the best interests of learners and work actively against creating the conditions providers need for providing high-quality learning experiences for all.’  Our party policy is to abolish league tables, which diminish the wonderful work of teachers in low-achieving areas.  There are other ways in which parents can find out the ethos and success of schools – and of course, league tables lead schools to focus on GCSE and A level, ignoring apprenticeships and the work skills the country desperately needs.

 

Mike Hopkins, Principal, Sussex Downs College

This study of the FE and Skills System conducted by The Policy Consortium, should be required reading for Ministers, politicians, officials, policy makers, practitioners and those interested in the FE system. I’d suggest that whatever your role in the system, you read it and contribute to the post launch debate and discussion.

 

Professor Ewart Keep, Director, Centre on Skills, Knowledge & Organisational Performance, Department of Education, Oxford University.

This is an excellent piece of work, which provides a view of the problems identified in the IFG’s All Change report from the other end of the telescope (i.e. it demonstrates how the policy process fails practitioners and the learners they are working with).  The remorseless politicisation of education and training policy has been a major problem, and it is being compounded by the mistaken belief on the part of ministers that they are there to act as hands-on micro-managers of policy design and implementation within institutions they have little knowledge or understanding of.   The results of these developments have been predictably dire.  In essence, FE finds itself trapped in an endless  policy loop, whereby the consequences of failed government ‘reforms’ and poor funding decisions create an air of crisis within the sector, that then justifies further government intervention and ‘reform’ to address this crisis.  Unless policy makers can learn to step back, reflect, slow down, and listen to practitioners, this loop cannot be broken.

 

Oliver Newton, Director of Policy and Research, Edge Foundation

This study continues the excellent work of City & Guilds’ Sense & Instability reports in highlighting the challenges that a state of perpetual revolution brings to the skills landscape. With growing skills shortages and the impact of the fourth industrial revolution, there has never been a more important time for skills policy. In the best systems, this vital area of work is not a political football but an area for long-term decision making between politicians, businesses and educators, with a high degree of autonomy for successful local leaders and practitioners.

 

Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary, TUC

As this new report highlights, the FE and skills system in England has to endure an endless cycle of reform and this volatility is not in the interests of learners or providers. We need to learn from the successful skill systems in other countries where systemic stability, long-term funding commitments, and a collaborative approach by employers and unions to addressing the skills needs of young people and adult learners makes a real positive impact.

 

Professor Kevin Orr, University of Huddersfield

The Policy Consortium has carried out a forensic examination of FE and their conclusion, in this bold report, that the conditions for success in the sector are not present, is both alarming and well-supported in their evidence. The report identifies specific root causes for negative impact in specific areas but a persistent theme is how the volatility of government policy for the FE sector has had unintended but persistently damaging consequences. The pithy and detailed descriptions of systemic failures, such as the implementation of compulsory resitting of GCSE English and maths, may shock even those aware of the sector’s situation. Each issue raised in the report has, however, a corresponding recommendation and these could be the basis for a fresh approach to policy, inspection and governance. These recommendations look beyond funding but the report is clear, “If you can’t afford the solution, you haven’t got a solution.” At a time when the T levels are being introduced and when many colleges are merging into huge organisations, this report is uncomfortable but necessary reading for anyone who cares about FE and the millions of students the sector serves.

The report is excellent and I think it is chilling. I was left bitter at the utter waste of time and effort that you identify time and again in relation to policy and inspection and I was also left with the burning hope that no one could write such a report in ten years’ time.

 

Michael Osbaldeston, Special Adviser and Skills Ambassador, City & Guilds Group

“FE is a crucial part of the skills world and has a fine tradition of delivering both technical and life skills to the widest age range of any part of the educational system.  Our Sense and Instability report showed the constant flux in the skills world, the lack of consistency, initiative overload (just one more!) – all of which is borne out by this report too.  The evidence is compelling.

If we want a skilled workforce, and if we want young people prepared for the world of work, we have to provide a stable long-term approach.  Further education, skills and training have to be taken out of the political arena: there is enough common ground to build a system fit for purpose, and with Brexit on the horizon this has to happen sooner rather than later.  Those countries that are upheld as best in class – Germany, Austria, Switzerland – may not have perfect systems, but have had long-term stability with all interested parties – political, educational, employers, unions – working in harmony.  We don’t have to create new institutions: we just have to provide the ones we have with enough stability to get on with the job!”

 

Dame Ruth Silver, President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership

This report is important for a number of reasons. First, it engages the sector in a way that is constructive and highly revealing. Second, it explores the context in which further education and skills policy is made, and the negative impact constant change has on the management and delivery of provision. And third, it offers a vision for how that context can be improved to be more conducive to successful, long-term policymaking for the sector. For the Further Education Trust for Leadership, this is critical and close to or mission and work.

For far too long, policy has been in an environment that is extremely volatile and subject to kneejerk reform from ministers who often come and go without ever really coming to terms with what this important sector is about. The sector needs to be proactive and involved in driving the change FE and skills and the country more widely needs, but this will only be possible when its leaders and teachers are freed from the shackles of constant and often ill-considered change.

This is an important report.  It contains accounts from the front line of more than one badly judged government initiative being forced on colleges without sufficient notice to the detriment of the learners. To add insult to this injury, colleges are then penalised by Ofsted and the funding agency for not making it work in time, to the wider detriment of the service colleges provide. It requires “action this day”!

 

Geoff Stanton, Commentator on FE and Skills

This is an important report.  It contains accounts from the front line of more than one badly judged government initiative being forced on colleges without sufficient notice to the detriment of the learners. To add insult to this injury, colleges are then penalised by Ofsted and the funding agency for not making it work in time, to the wider detriment of the service colleges provide. It requires “action this day”!

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Telling stories at college

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In a recent piece for FE News, the Policy Consortium’s Nick Warren draws on his experience, in numerous colleges, of the amazing stories told by the amazing people who staff them.Powerful stories can have a big impact on prospective students” he says. “Try putting out an all-staff e mail asking for their stories. You will be delighted by what happens next”.

See Nick’s FE News article: How interesting are you?

 

 

 

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Research Networking: looking to the future.

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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.

Proposition

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.

Design

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 a.j.morris@ucl.ac.uk.

Andrew Morris 8th January 2018

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Another ‘T’ level teaser

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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

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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

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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?

 

NCFE designs, develops and certificates NCFE and CACHE branded qualifications, apprenticeships, Functional Skills and more, with over 500 nationally accredited qualifications in NCFE’s portfolio. All are supported by NCFE’s exceptional customer service and unique, friendly approach. Last year, 340,000 learners from 2,000 educational institutions chose NCFE to move their careers forward

 

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

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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.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/PC_TES_FESURVEY2017

 

Contact: Tony Davis tony@ccqi.org.uk

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

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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

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 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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