Mick Fletcher’s analysis of the recent Skills Funding letter sets the background for policy developments from 2015 onwards.  This article first appeared in FE Week.

Bad news for adult learning but not good for SFA either

Much of the response to the Skills Funding letter published recently has concentrated on the effective 24% cut to the adult skills budget.  It is shocking even if wholly predictable.  The consequence will be further cuts in college provision and cuts further down the line too as funding for franchise partners, often for work with the most disadvantaged communities, is withdrawn to help balance the books. An increase in the loan allocation will be of little help since institutions are clearly struggling to make use of what they already have.

These cuts need to be seen alongside the collapse in part time higher education, the closure of libraries up and down the land and the drop in workforce training offered by employers.  Taken together they mean that the opportunities for individuals to better themselves through education are shrinking fast.  The ‘night school tradition’; further education as the ‘second chance’ to get on in life; self-improvement as the route out of precarious employment are being casually and callously abandoned despite our remaining one of the richest countries in the world.

Along with the figures however the grant letter gives interesting evidence of the growing marginalisation of the Skills Funding Agency. Six out of the 14 funding lines in the document are managed by BIS or some agency other than the SFA which must encourage speculation about its future.  There have been rumours in the past about merging BIS with DfE in order to bring all education back under one roof but the transfer of at least some of BIS activities around ‘remedial’ education to DWP looks equally likely. Either way I wouldn’t bet on the SFA lasting until Xmas.

A careful reading of the funding letter enables one to see two possible strands of a future settlement.  One of them gives slight grounds for optimism and the other more cause for alarm. The choice will be affected but not wholly determined by outcome of the election so those in the sector need to read the signs carefully.

The optimistic vision of the future is the reflection in adult education of wider trends towards devolution.  The recent, supposedly ‘premature’ SFA letter outlining ways in which LEPs can influence adult skills budgets was widely criticised but local influence (as opposed to detailed second guessing of institutional management) must be right.  To the extent that local authorities can add a broader community vision and some democratic legitimacy to the enthusiasm and employer engagement brought by LEPs localism offers more opportunities than threats. There is a chance that adult education might be rescued by localities even as it is abandoned by the centre; after all the further education system was mainly built locally in the absence of any coherent national vision and finds its strongest support in local communities rather than the corridors of Whitehall.

The less optimistic future concerns the retention by BIS of funds for individual pet projects of which perhaps the most egregious example is the Employer Ownership pilots; their funding is up by 17% despite a track record of success that is all but invisible. The shadowy process for identifying new National Colleges is another example of opportunistic politics.  The risk is that any rational architecture for setting policy priorities for investment in adult education is undermined by an expansion of the pork-barrel politics associated with City Deals, where every public investment is timed and framed to suit short term political agendas rather than wider public need.

Colleges and other providers may be able to influence how these competing trends play out.  If they give their active support to the local coalitions that are emerging in and around our major cities they may find that civic pride and a care for communities is a better source of support for adult education that the narrow economic instrumentalism that motivates BIS.  If they resist then the risk is that future arrangements will not only be short of funding but also short of any transparent logic.




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More budget blues from a true blue budget? As George Osborne announces plans for another budget Mick Fletcher reflects on the implications for FE of the first budget 2015 and is not impressed. This article first appeared in FE Week.

Budget 2015 said very little about FE. In another sense however it said a great deal. The choices the Chancellor made, ignoring a mounting crisis in our FE system while frittering millions on pre-election give-aways spoke volumes about his priorities.

For instance the chancellor cut the duty on spirits by 2% at an annual cost of £100 million. That’s about the same sum recently saved through cutting the funding rate for 18 year olds by 17.5%, a cut disproportionately hitting the disadvantaged and low achievers. It’s an odd society that cuts £700 from the education of every 18 year old just to knock 16p off a bottle of whisky.

Its not the only odd choice. The chancellor spent £85m exempting children from Air Passenger Duty. That’s more than twice the cost of abolishing the ’Learning Tax’ whereby 6th form colleges pay VAT that schools and academies don’t. The average SFC will continue to pay £335,000 per year on VAT, cutting the teaching hours of A level students just so families can save £13 on flying a five year old to Malaga.

Researchers recently showed that 16-18 year olds in our schools and colleges are systematically short changed compared to those in almost all other advanced countries; our ‘ full time’ programmes have around half the teaching hours of high performing jurisdictions like Shanghai and Singapore. One reason for this is the abolition of the entitlement which cut the funding for 84 hours ‘enrichment’ per year from full time programmes. Half of that could be reinstated for £250 million but the chancellor used the money instead to stop the rise in fuel duty this autumn; an increase that would hardly be noticed when oil prices are plummeting.

Repairing recent damage to 16-18 education was not the only option the chancellor overlooked. He could have plugged some of the gaps appearing in adult FE where over a million learning opportunities have been lost since 2010. The average cost of a place in adult FE is around £670; so the £85 million spent reducing the price of beer by a penny a pint might instead have provided places for 125,000 adults. So could the money spent subsidising ‘Granny bonds’ for pensioners with cash to spare.
It’s a sad day for skills when investment in booze and foreign holidays is deemed more important than supporting further education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Nash

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In an extended and adapted version of a recent blog for the Campaign for Learning’s website, Mike Cooper considers just where 24+ Advanced Learning Loans are now, and may be heading.

24+ Advanced Learning (‘FE’) Loans have been around for several years; they’re into their third annual series. Last summer, BIS proposed (amongst other things) to expand their scope ‘downwards’ regarding both the age-range and levels criteria.

After long silence, the government response came just before the General Election purdah period. Several proposals were resolved (e.g., removing the cap on the numbers of concurrent Loans, and transferring Higher Nationals to BIS/SFA funding and thus bringing those into scope – the first a ‘yes’, and the second a ‘no’). However, the ‘downwards expansion’ decision was kicked into familiar long grass, until the autumn’s planned Comprehensive Spending Review, apparently in order to align with a major review of Adult Education funding.

Not long before the response appeared, a Campaign for Learning seminar explored the proposals. Some wider mysteries were considered, too, on that occasion. In fact, those matters may well be rather bigger, wider and more significant than just the proposals in that 2014 consultation.

In a nutshell, the Adult Skills Budget has been and is shrinking: rapidly, substantially, and probably for some years to come if not permanently. The Treasury’s budget for the 24+ Advanced Learning Loans is expanding in response – although not equally, nevertheless significantly.

So: a burning question has to be about why Loans take-up (allocations requested by and given to providers, numbers of applications and amount of spend) has been so low, and so slow to grow? If indeed ‘FE loans are a failed policy’, as some like David Hughes of NIACE would maintain, then – in what way? And for what reasons?

The latest ASB reduction (average 24%) follows many years of regular and substantial cuts. Provision, staffing and other capacity has been lost; more will follow – with considerable impact for learners, provider organisations, staff, communities and others.

Howls of outrage, protest and despair about this have to be seen against an often lukewarm and sometimes downright hostile FE sector attitude to Loans, though. Since they can legitimately be used as a significant mitigating factor in many cases, this is puzzling. Here are some salient points.

  • The first year’s ‘use it or lose it’ Loans budget of £130m was badly underspent, with no roll-over. Awkward – for everyone bar the Chancellor.
  • More awkward still, this year’s tripled Loans budget (£400m) seems likely to be even more greatly underspent this year, with a consequent huge further funding loss to the sector.
  • Not only are fewer providers offering Loans this year, the proportion of those v. all ASB-funded providers has dropped, too.
  • Tellingly, despite most providers’ 24+ Loans facilities increasing significantly (as SFA tries to close the gap), the proportion of that against ASB allocation is actually slightly down, on average, nationally. In other words, managing Loans funding to help plug provider ‘funding gaps’ is even less successful now.
  • And perhaps most tellingly of all, contrasts between individual providers in their approaches to Loans (e.g., requesting or growing Loans facilities, sensibly adjusting provision patterns, and effective marketing/IAG) are more and more striking. Some are forging ahead, some are falling further behind.

That last point is particularly piquant. Admittedly, not all providers can use the current Loans for their current offer. Or at least, not yet; some adaptation of their provision could often be considered, probably. And where their provision does qualify for Loan funding, steps are possible to maximise them for the benefit of all. There are striking examples of imaginative, genuine success in doing that – amongst both colleges and independent training providers.

Yet many other providers remain slow on the uptake, rather reluctant, or plain resistant. Overall, it seems clear that FE overall isn’t always capitalising on Loans as a partial replacement funding-stream for ASB, or planning for ways that might allow them to allow them to do so. Loans may never be a like-for-like replacement for ASB funding; but they’re certainly ‘not to be sneezed-at’, either. Few providers can afford to be complacent, or resistant.

One rather different question still seems to arise amongst some providers: will FE Loans disappear altogether (as did their use for Apprenticeships)? That seems very unlikely, considering the economy. Moreover, the fact that (like HE Loans) they’re a Labour idea suggests not, as well.

The picture of ASB funding decline against a rising Loans budget is both clear and stark. Even if the ‘downwards expansions’ (into the 19-23 age-range, and for some Level 2 courses) don’t actually happen, there’s still a lot to play for, under the current criteria.

So, it’s a mystery just why so many FE providers appear to be well behind the curve, with cries of “Learners won’t like the idea!” and “No national marketing campaign!” as their rationales. As the figures for, and practice of, some providers (across all sub-sectoral types) show, the former assertion is untrue, where Loans IAG is properly handled – thus also largely invalidating the later explanation.

In short, then: Loans are here, and are growing, in response to shrinking ASB money. Envisioned positively, they can provide a valuable counter-measure against rapidly shrinking adult learning funds (and thus vanishing provision, staff cuts, site closures, etc.). Implemented properly, learners like them, take them up and make good use of them.

The FE sector as a whole needs urgently to understand this, accept it and act on it – as some signal success-stories have already done.


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   Policy Consortium member Ian Nash considers the recent report from the Association of Colleges about cuts in funding for adults.

Coalition Government policies for further education are increasingly being exposed as, at best, ill-considered. The latest to ring the alarm bell is the Association of Colleges, in a report this week which warns that – as a result of a 40% cut in cash terms over the life of this Government and more expected – adult education and training in England will not exist in any recognisable form by 2020.

This is no idle back-of-an-envelope, pre-election prediction but hard and sober calculation based on a raft of researches by the RCU, surveys of colleges and published data from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), among others.

Why does this matter? Ministers have repeatedly said adults and employers should stop relying on the state, as cash in an age of austerity had to be concentrated on the young – a message repeated by BIS officials and ministers’ advisers during and after George Osborne’s budget last week. It matters for two reasons: first because the policies that emerged in the name of austerity have failed to create the incentives expected of them, not least around the question of adult loans from age 19 or 21 on and for low-level courses, which the BIS consultation response has effectively kicked into the long grass, at least until the next Comprehensive Spending Review. Second, because the cash was never actually focused on the younger group – outside the school system. As a result, the 16 to 24-year-olds in colleges who have borne the brunt of successive cuts have become a new ‘lost generation’.

They are lost because they were short-changed at 16, when there was an 11% funding gap with schools that grew worse as they progressed. And now, since they depend on well-funded adult learning and skills provision to redeem their situation, they find that particular purse all but empty.

So, what are the headline issues in the AoC research? A survey of member colleges estimates that as adult education funding decreases by 24% for the academic year 2015-16, more than 190,000 adult learning places could be lost in this next year alone. Areas likely to be hit hardest are Health, Public Services and Care, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Even though the country’s health and social care system is in crisis, essential courses fall by over 40,000 places next year, says the AoC, while ICT courses could lose over 10,500 places.

Since the big squeeze from 2012 onwards, when the number of adult students on Level 3 courses fell by 17.9 per cent, the AoC is concerned that there will no longer be an adult education system to support students aged 19 and over by 2020. Martin Doel, AoC chief executive, points out that this comes at a time when the proportion of over-50s in the workforce is set to rise to a third of the workforce by 2020 (from 27 per cent at the moment) and 50 per cent of workers aged over 55 are proposing to work beyond the state pension age.

Ironically, the group now aged around 50 include a previous ‘lost generation’ who suffered under the recession-driven cuts of the 1970s and 80s. Among those who succeeded, often against the odds, are many who now need retraining in new industry skills for employment – a priority identified 10 years ago in the Treasury-commissioned Leitch reviews of UK skills to the year 2020.

“These cuts could mean an end to the vital courses that provide skilled employees for the workforce such as nurses and social care workers,” he says. “No college can absorb that kind of cut without major disruption and undermining of services.” Two reasons for the crisis now looming were the obsession with Apprenticeships, even when wholly inappropriate, and the failure of minsters and advisers to understand the diversity of adult education and training needs colleges were already serving.

“The Apprenticeship has become a synonym for skills system. It is not, and it is not the answer in all cases; nor is the Traineeship initiative. Either they don’t have a job or, if they do have one, they don’t necessarily have an employer who will train them.”

The government has talked up the success of Apprenticeships and claims to have created two million in the life of the Coalition. In fact, only a small minority were true Apprenticeships, while most were either in-house training schemes masquerading as genuine, in the early years of the Coalition, or fell well short of the two-year minimum accepted in all other leading industrial nations.

Also, the focus on apprenticeship is actually a cover for a transfer of state support from citizens to corporations. The ability of individuals to improve themselves through education has been sacrificed in order to subsidise the training that employers should be funding themselves. Ministers have also retreated from every measure requiring employers to pay and now propose a voucher system sometime soon – but not before the General Election.

Meanwhile, more than 1 million adults lost learning opportunities as a result of the austerity cuts, despite constant warnings of the consequences. David Hughes, NIACE Chief Executive, says: “I have been saying for the last year that we are facing a skills crisis. We should all be telling young people to get their state-funded learning in as quickly as they can. Because once they hit 21 there won’t be any support left. That is not a great scenario for a society in which people are living longer and wanting to contribute to society and work longer too.”

The ‘real priorities’ of Conservatives and Liberals in the run-up to the General Election were neatly identified by Mick Fletcher, a director of the RCU and member of the Policy Consortium, in an analysis of the Budget in the current edition of FE Week: “The average cost of a place in adult FE is around £670; so the £85m spent reducing the price of beer by a penny a pint might instead have provided places for 125,000 adults. So could the money spent subsidising ‘Granny bonds’ for pensioners – with cash to spare.”

Martin Doel describes support for the current adult education as “a pipeline that’s leaking all over the place. There is no sense of a progression pathway,” he says. “Alternatively, there are loads of systems leading to blind alleys.” Ministers failed to see the complexity, how some colleges were right to focus on the young, subsidising 19 to 20-year-olds, some buying into 25-plus, and others working though employers to upskill the workforce. “Making a single case around adult education and skills is difficult.”

He is not holding his breath for the outcome of the election. “There’s significant congruency around the importance of Apprenticeships. There are some positives in all three main party offers but there is no comprehensive view of a pipeline approach that takes people from where they are now Ian  Nash

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Policy Consortium members Colin Forrest and Mike Cooper discuss the content and focus of the current (autumn 2014) Ofsted consultation exercise about revamping the Common Inspection Framework.

Reading the preamble to Ofsted’s consultation about radically overhauling the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) suggests a degree of reflection from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector: not only the title, but the narrative and rhetoric. He hints at three main weaknesses (or perhaps that should be ‘areas for improvement’?) in the inspection methodology that need addressing: consistency, better inspector training and more practitioners becoming involved as inspectors.

The consultation’s questions cover quite different areas, though. They mainly relate to developing a ‘more common’ CIF – across maintained schools, academies, FE and skills, early-years settings and some independent schools. Given that disparity, here are some ideas about those three issues raised by Sir Michael Wilshaw.


At first glance, this new approach could potentially enhance consistency to a degree. It’s been welcomed as providing more equitable comparisons between, say, school sixth forms and sixth form or GFE colleges.

However, critics of a lack of consistency in inspection haven’t focussed on the framework’s validity as an evaluation tool, so much as its application – and the resulting reliability of inspectors’ judgements. The Chief Inspector has blamed perceptions of an ‘element of luck’ that providers have experienced on the three contractors for the associate inspector workforce: CfBT, Serco and Tribal.

Sir Michael will therefore take this aspect back in-house, reportedly to improve consistency. The consultation’s Q11 focuses specifically on reliability of judgements and evidence-gathering, suggesting that this is a concern for Ofsted.

Is this really where the problem lies, though?

Perhaps the reductionist nature of the inspection process is the real heart of the consistency issue. Ultimately, just one of four broad grades is used – although talk of, for example, a “strong grade two” often pervades inspections, somewhat hedging Ofsted’s bets. The brave statement that inspectors will use “all the available evidence” to arrive at judgements appears in the consultation, alongside a restatement of the current grading headings.

But the complexity of what is under scrutiny isn’t amenable to such simplistic categorisation. Moreover, how any valid intelligence and lessons from provider complaints are used to improve the reliability of inspection judgements is not clear. The number of complaints, and the fact that very few are upheld, are both made public. Yet, little information is available about the nature of the complaints, the significance of any resulting changes and how all of that informs improvements to inspection. Although some complaints will come from providers who are essentially ‘in denial’ of bad news, others may have some degree of merit – and a few have sufficient to warrant being upheld. Those final two categories contain food for thought and action by Ofsted.

Shouldn’t the reflective development of a standard framework across most of the education system incorporate a proper analysis of the ‘free consultancy’ that complaints provide? After all, the complaints procedure is itself already generic across Ofsted. There’s also the issue that, if providers from the FE sector (or indeed, elsewhere) do not feel a revised ‘universal’ CIF is appropriate for inspecting their work, then complaints about the inappropriateness of judgements made using it will increase.

Ofsted has re-engaged with improvement for some time; it asks for advice on how it inspects. The consultation’s introduction indicates that future inspections will encourage “professional dialogue about the key issues, strengths and weaknesses that are most relevant to the individual school or further education and skills provider”. In some settings, linking HMI to weaker providers has been welcomed – as have proposals envisaging more frequent inspections for good or outstanding providers. Equating inspections with ‘professional dialogue’, whilst coupling them with the re-introduction of the word ‘weaknesses’ is a somewhat piquant idea, however.

A consultation question ‘that might have been’, here, would run: “How can providers work more closely and effectively with Ofsted to ensure the best degree of consistency and reliability in its judgements, whilst also maintaining proper independence and rigour?”

Better-trained inspectors

Ofsted already has a significant and demanding training programme for inspectors, whether full-time or part-time. To suggest more may be impractical and possibly even counter-productive. But better training, however – more closely reacting to matters like achieving reliable and consistent judgements, or using evidence with greater insight and evaluative care – is neither impossible nor a trivial as a goal. The implications of getting these judgements wrong are significant for providers and the individuals. Change is imperative.

Currently, training is varied and includes shadowing, regular updates and a requirement to keep up-to-date by undertaking several inspections a year. There’s a strong consensus that the current Common Inspection Framework focuses on the right areas; but it isn’t clear how training will address the proposed increased emphasis on the curriculum. Indeed, the focus isn’t clear from the consultation: is it ‘English and maths as indicators of employability’, or ‘how effective the offer is in meeting local employer needs’? If both, then what are the priorities? How will training enhance inspectors’ knowledge of the complexitiess and nuances of individual LEPs to which providers increasingly look for funding?

If the inspection framework is a device for evaluation, then inspectors need to handle both quantitative and qualitative data reliably. Training is necessary for using performance statistics, value-added and distance-travelled information. The validity of judgements can be enhanced through analysing qualitative data, too.

A missing question from the consultation in this field would be “How could providers help Ofsted improve its training of inspectors, without unduly increasing the burdens of such preparation?”

More practitioners as inspectors

Some of the harshest criticisms of inspection involve the credibility of highly-influential judgements from inspectors who may be far removed from the sector, the key matters under consideration (like teaching and learning, or the subjects, settings and courses involved), and from the genuine realities of provision.

One apparent solution lies in having a greater slice of inspection activity undertaken by current practitioners. It seems an obvious answer, with considerable benefits for all those involved.

However, the disadvantages are not as well appreciated. For instance, assumptions arising from being immersed in daily practice for one kind of provision can prove more difficult to put aside in a different inspection context than it is for someone who is otherwise more remote. A good example might be the highly-contested territory of graded or ungraded lesson observations, where views are strongly-held on either side.

Being a practitioner doesn’t automatically guarantee the skill-set to be an inspector, too – although Ofsted’s recruitment processes can make such distinctions. Some might however argue that they haven’t always succeeded, to date.

Relating the practical demands of inspection schedules to inspector supply may still produce anomalies. And if an associate inspector works at a provider that drops to ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’, then he/she is barred from undertaking inspections until that grade improves. All this has a potential impact on the supply of inspectors and their deployment.

More sheer practicalities add to reservations around the good idea of engaging more current sector staff as inspectors. Ofsted’s training and accreditation regime, and its inspection and reporting processes, are all famously demanding – and rightly so. Yet so too is the day-job; and as most would agree, increasingly so. Whatever the potential advantages, providers may think twice about their staff becoming associate inspectors, and a commitment to release for a set minimum number of inspections.

This is particularly so when – as one rightly hopes with potential inspectors – they are high-performing ‘assets’. Similarly, even ambitious and able full-time staff may feel that taking on an inspection role would prove one extra burden too far.

Availability at short notice is a further key challenge: for Ofsted, for providers employing would-be part-time inspectors, and for those practitioners themselves. Although Ofsted’s confidential scheduling is not normally short-notice itself, the realities suggest that there may well be an growing stream of urgent late calls for associate inspectors to fill gaps.

So, improving inspection through increasing current practitioners has clear attractions – but that involves significant risks, too.

Here, the consultation might have asked “How can Ofsted make better use of the sector practitioners’ current experience and ability in inspections, without unrealistic demands on the organisations and individuals involved?”

So, will “better inspection” actually produce improved provision for all?

Sir Michael Wilshaw was quite right to highlight those three topics in his preamble. Why those issues did not feature in significantly in the consultation is puzzling – not least because arguably, they matter at least as much as the structural discussion about a universal framework regarding the key, ultimate function of inspection: improvement.

Any change in inspection must aim at achieving more effective, speedy and reliable impact on learners’ experience and outcomes. The process also needs to become more transparent, adding to the potential for co-ownership, between providers and the inspectorate, of improvement.

Some time ago, the Skills Commission called for an evaluation of Ofsted’s role in improvement. Nothing in this consultation hints at reviewing this crucial – perhaps uncomfortable? – aspect of its work. Yet it refers to the inspectorate ‘evolving’. Few, if any, students of Darwin would recognise that as an appropriate description of the proposed changes.

If the right consultation questions aren’t being asked now, then how and from where will improvement come?


This piece was originally published in a slightly different version by ‘FE Week’, in hard-copy and on-line, in late November/December 2014. The consultation period ends on 6 December 2014.


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Andrew Morris reports from a recent LSRN meeting on FE’s growing use of evidence

If South Staffordshire College, Thurrock Adult Community College and HMP Dovegate are anything to go by, a significant change in the use of evidence is indeed taking place across the FE sector. Teachers and managers from these and many other organisations discussed the practicalities of using research at the latest workshop of the Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN).

As participants heard, loud and clear, the sector is not alone in this: evidence-based approaches are rising up the agenda right across the public services. From healthcare and social care to the police and probation services, sound research is being mobilised to strengthen practice. The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, the College of Policing and the Alliance for Useful Evidence – all established within the last five years – bear witness to this recent upsurge.

In education, the remarkable success of the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Toolkit’ of evidence-based practices in teaching and learning has been used by over half of secondary schools in its three years of existence. Numerous organisations are now helping get the right kind of evidence in the right format to those who need it most: practitioners and decision-makers at the frontline.

What this means in practical terms for the learning and skills sector is illustrated by the work of Michael Smith and Paul Roberts, team leaders at Barking and Dagenham College. Having identified an important college-wide issue — initial assessment procedures that assigned too many students to the wrong level — they set about collating information, looking at existing research and proposing a new approach to the senior team. With their support, a pilot scheme was developed and carefully tested. As Michael expresses it, “We were then able to move forward with knowledge and understanding from the testing.”

Chris Davies, director of curriculum at South Staffordshire College, reinforces the importance of first identifying a serious college-wide problem and then taking an evidence-based approach. A study he had undertaken revealed that 40% of staff non-teaching time was spent on activity not related to teaching. On the basis of this, changes were made — such as aligning central administrative staff with curriculum areas on each campus.

It’s not only FE colleges that are moving ahead with evidence. Stephanie Taylor’s initial research at HMP Dovegate, studying the role of the tutor in offender institutions, has given rise to a programme of small-scale action research projects amongst practitioners and a collaborative project on learning support assistants with Nottingham Trent University.

At Thurrock Adult Community College, Assistant Principal Nick Bailey is developing a professional development model that will supersede existing performance review, graded observation and CPD recording processes. It embeds the new standards for teaching and training from the Education and Training Foundation (ETF). With the help of an ETF Research Fellowship, he is testing and refining the model.

The sheer variety of evidence-based initiatives is impressive — developing augmented reality for bricklaying, supported enquiry for youth workers tackling gangs, ‘clinically interviewing’ learners as they work through numeracy problems. This very diversity produced the key message from the LSRN workshop: don’t look for one standard approach to evidence-use. “Silver pellets rather than bullets,” as one participant put it.

From the many examples of the use of evidence highlighted at the workshop, some idea of the practicalities began to emerge. “Stop waiting for government initiatives” was one piece of sound advice. “Stop counting beans” was another, equally pithy. The key message, repeated in case after case, was to start by identifying a key problem that seriously affects student learning and then arm yourself with knowledge and evidence. To do this requires space and time for reflection and experimentation.

Finding these scarce resources was a recurring theme. The solution demonstrated through many successful initiatives is to make use of existing structures, such as professional development days and focusing on problems that will help the organisation move forward. No doubt the new grants announced at the workshop from the Further Education Trust for Leadership will help, providing financial and professional support for a number of new practice-based studies.

Encouragement from a leadership team proves an essential ingredient in the view of most project leaders. But for budget-holders, it’s not easy to decide where to invest. Research does not generally provide simple answers guaranteed to improve outcomes; by definition, it addresses unknowns. Innovation requires a degree of risk-taking and leaders have to weigh this up in allocating budgets.

So what can project leaders do to persuade a reluctant leadership team? “Be pragmatic” seemed to be the advice from participants: if the leadership team is accountancy-minded, base your research on the data they collect. If a research investment carries a big risk, look for previous studies first, and then pilot it on a small scale.

For the FE sector at large, what can be said at system level — beyond just that there is a multitude of examples of research-in-use? If using evidence is beneficial, what are the conditions under which it flourishes? Evidence from a recent study of evidence-use was cited by NFER’s Research Director Julie Nelson, to suggest that the “pull” of practitioners using research to solve actual problems is as important as the “push” of researchers disseminating their work. All players need to be involved in system-wide development of research-usage and the purpose behind any project should determine the approach taken. Small-scale action research is appropriate for professional learning, whereas a base of evidence synthesised from larger-scale studies is preferable for major investment decisions.

The overarching message from initiatives in different parts of the sector is that the use of evidence is not just an individual affair; it flourishes when a collaborative approach spreads across an organisation. Trust is the key – specifically, trusting relationships in which sound evidence and professional judgement justify the risk of investing in innovative approaches. In such an environment, an evidence-using culture can develop which, over time, offers the prospect of better outcomes for both learners and the bottom line.

An abridged version of this piece first appeared in ‘FE Week’ on 24 November 2014.

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Ian Nash, who recently edited a book about Alan Tuckett’s columns in the Times Education Supplement, sees age-old arguments about the need for a lifelong learning entitlement resurfacing.

It says so much about the Coalition Government’s education policies when a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills official leading the launch of a new vocational education research centre could stand up and say: “BIS has no interest in anyone over 24-plus.”
And it comes to something when BIS prioritises research into people who are in another department’s remit (14-18) to the exclusion of people who are clearly part of their own. In fairness, the speaker assumed the question about age was asking “how low will you go?” rather than how high. But that does not excuse the apparent failure both to understand why we need to reach millions of post-24 adults and, equally to the point, how to reach them.

None of this would surprise Alan Tuckett, former Director of Niace, the national organisation for adult learning, whose writings for the TES, written over more than 15 years, were published as a book this month. He has seen governments of all colours marginalising adult learning in its broadest sense for decades – a neglect that has done repeated damage to the national economy – despite the overwhelming weight of evidence that adult education leads to greater savings in health, welfare and numerous other costs.

I was his commissioning editor for most of those years and therefore have taken the opportunity to compile, edit and narrate those columns for the book, Seriously Useless Learning – an expression Tuckett coined when reminding government ministers that spending on such learning (all learning) is an investment, not a cost. In a recent interview, he reminded me of what “the evidence” told him: “When politicians are forced to decide whether to spend on schools or adult learning, on skills or ‘other’ learning,” he said, “then you can be sure they have the wrong policies.”

One could argue that there is no need for new BIS-commissioned research since there are mountains of the discarded or disregarded stuff in the archives, if only civil servants and politicians bothered to read it. The signposts are there in Tuckett’s writings and the BIS Commons Select Committee would do well to scour them. After all, the cross-party group made excoriating remarks about the Government’s failure to focus sufficient resources on the fight against adult innumeracy and illiteracy. A recent OECD report had suggested a sharp decline in standards and consequent dropping-off of a whole array of measures, such as family learning. As a result, intergenerational disadvantage was once again becoming entrenched in the poorest reaches of society.

The BIS committee made a number of recommendations in its report, including the urgent call for a high-profile campaign to tackle the problems and a more “joined-up approach” from Government to respond more strategically to the need for rapid improvement. Central to the proposed reforms is the very real need for improved funding arrangements, better assessments and resources to support the literacy and numeracy needs of unemployed people. There is a strong sense of déjà vu here for Tuckett, since these are three of the core demands he repeatedly made – always with the evidence to support such calls for action.

There is more besides; at the time the committee was reporting, the row over intergenerational disadvantage resulting from poverty was resurfacing with the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report suggesting the cycle of poverty and lack of achievement passed down from parents to children in Britain are far worse than previously thought.

Children whose fathers failed at school and later in life were at least seven times less likely themselves to achieve compared with those from more successful families, the ONS pointed out. The clear indication throughout evidence is that politicians forcing through austerity measures had the evidence but were unwilling to acknowledge this.

Again, Tuckett’s evidence pre-dates the ONS report – by 20 years. And this time around many social welfare charities have been hammering on about the problems of under-investment. For example, while the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points to evidence that children and parents from poorer backgrounds develop lower expectations, leading to under-achievement and failed ambitions.

The message may be getting home to other politicians as we saw adult education chiefs making an impassioned plea over the summer for every adult to be given the chance to participate in the UK’s increasingly digital society, regardless of their age, stage or background. Niace put its case to the House of Lords Select Committee Inquiry into the Digital Competitiveness of the UK. Too many people were being excluded, with four groups at highest risk – people with disabilities, the unemployed, people in low wage jobs in mid-life and older people.

What makes the state of affairs in the UK all the more depressing is that successive governments had the means and initial policies to tackle head-on issues around adult learning, only to throw them away. Indeed, the evidence amassed by Labour prior to the 1997 General Election landslide under Tony Blair – that would lead to the most visionary of White Papers, The Learning Age – emboldened the party enough to promise adult learning entitlements for all over 50. For Tuckett, this looked as if his long-fought battle was over.
In the event, it never happened. Six years after the initial implementation of expansionist lifelong learning policies, initiated by David Blunkett, Education Secretary and architect of The Learning Age, utilitarianism and the start of a Treasury-driven obsession with the narrowest of agendas to improve skills for work wiped out 1m adult learning opportunities in less than two years. Successive measures by Labour and the Coalition Governments proved ineffective or inept and, no matter what was done, the moans from industry about the parlous state of UK skills just kept on coming – and still do.

Tuckett charted the vicissitudes of adult and lifelong learning more than anyone else over the years as adult education columnist for the TES, not through arid restating of policy issues in which education writers so easily become trapped but in the detailing of firm evidence which he conveyed through the telling of funny, heart-warming and often angry stories, contrasting remarkable successes of those who return to learn later in life with the pity of those who get excluded.

His arguments were never glib gainsay but an assertion based on acute observation as well as the mass of research. The notion of seriously useless learning was also an expression at the heart of the former president of the EU Jacques Delors’ 1998 International Commission on Education for the 21st Century. And as Tuckett remarked in his interview with me: “He set out clearly the case for sustained lifelong learning throughout the Union,” and for a time was not without influence.

The arguments went beyond the narrow “utilitarian” agenda of New Labour and the Coalition, Tuckett stresses. “One of lessons in the recent PIAAC international study from the OECD is a finding that the key skill leading to improved productivity in work is learning something you are passionate about. It is not the industry training that matters so much as the increased motivation through any learning – we know that learning leaks.” Again, this echoes the research at the time of Delors.

What is most joyous and informative about Tuckett’s writing is that it constantly returns to the idea that “it is the learning we love the most that will motivate us to return to learn again and again. We need a holistic approach; to single out one form of learning above all others for particular attention is folly”, he insists. In saying this, he is careful not to proselytise or to make special pleading for those forms of learning that down the years have been called everything from extra-mural, to leisure, to “other” learning.
“Learning in the workplace should be an entitlement for all.” Here he points to the successes of companies such as Ford, who have their own university and allow workers time out for non-work-related learning, and to the TUC’s Unionlearn – one of the Labour Government’s notable successes – that has helped develop similar learning programmes across the country.

“A lot of money has been spent on adult learning but it has too often been at the exclusion of community and other learning. Vocational and skill training is important but too often there is no focus on well-being, confidence and other measures to sustain the quality of life outside work.”

In his writing, Tuckett repeatedly points to the folly of “silo” thinking, the lack of joined-up government and the failure to see benefits despite the evidence. “Labour is proposing to merge health and welfare policies but this won’t work without education in the pot as well,” he says – again drawing on evidence. For example, a Niace project in a West Country care home encouraged care workers to “prescribe” learning instead of pills for the elderly and infirm. It led to their having longer, more active and interesting lives – cutting care costs by £100,000 a year in the process. But without central government support and assistance with some resources such ideas do not spread easily.

“After such promise under Labour in the 1990s, from 2003 you can see (and the book charts this) steady withdrawal of funding from FE and adult learning. Throughout the period of the column we saw the rise in dominance of Treasury thinking over Education Department thinking and the rise of dead weight initiatives such as Train to Gain, where the state paid employers millions for training they were previously funding themselves.

“It’s not just the Treasury market fashion that held sway but withdrawal of funding for post-25s, at the same time that we were spending billions on bombing Iraq. Instead of guns into ploughshares we saw ploughshares into guns.”

Seriously Useless Learning gives credit where due to ministers. “John Denham, Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Business, had a very good understanding of it but was playing with threepences, trying to get people to do things for themselves instead of seeing a role for the public purse.” Another minister, Ivan Lewis, secured £300m ring-fenced adult community learning money in the noughties that survived the transition to the austerity-cutting Coalition Government.

From the start of the final term to the dying days in office, relations between adult educators and the Labour Government would be fraught, with cuts to English for Speakers of Other Languages and increasing utilitarianism. Yet, throughout, Tuckett is always quick to point with optimism to new developments such as new measures to improve access to informal learning despite the lack of state cash. And with the arrival of the Coalition, he gave the benefit of the doubt wherever possible, though that was quickly to wear thin, particularly when John Hayes, the first FE and skills minister, who Tuckett reckoned really understood further and adult education, moved on.

As the book reveals, two things sustains Tuckett: the inspiration that comes from those who discover the joy of lifelong learning and his firm belief in the evidence. “For example, the Skills for Life survey of 2003 shows adults with the strongest learning habits and highest level of accomplishment are those who went to school in the Plowden years. The learner-centred philosophy so decried now by policy makers is one we will have to return to if we are to succeed with lifelong learning – and we will.”

Whether any of this influences the work of the new BIS vocational education research centre is anyone’s guess.

Seriously Useless Learning: The collected TES writings of Alan Tuckett with introduction and narrative by Ian Nash, Niace ISBN 978-1-8620187-7-8; £14.95 from http://shop.niace.org.uk/seriously-useless-learning.html; call 0970 600 2400 or email direct.orders@marston.co.uk

This article is an expanded version of pieces written for The TES and Education Journal

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Mike Cooper introduces the newest practical materials in its ‘Other Resources’ service, offered by the Policy Consortium to help providers in their everyday activities.

Since May 2014, the Policy Consortium has posted a varied set of documents offered as free downloads under the ‘Other Resources’ section of this website, all aimed at day-to-day issues such as management, quality and teaching, learning and assessment. The latest of these consists of two linked sample Word documents, focused on the government’s recent moves to raise standards in English amongst learners across the FE and Skills sector.

The new requirement for all those in 16-19 Study Programmes to work towards a Grade C or better in GCSE English (if they haven’t already reached that level) places additional burdens on providers. These affect staff – both those who teach English, and other courses – as well as learners.

This change coincides with curriculum revisions in English, placing greater emphasis on basic writing skills such as ‘SPaG’: spelling, punctuation and grammar. There will be tougher expectations of learner performance over these matters, particularly in the controlled conditions of final examinations. More broadly, learners at all levels and at all ages are being challenged to raise their game in English.

For many learners, especially those arriving at an FE course with GCSE English at Grades D, E and F, or no grade at all, this is likely to be daunting. Staff will need to consider individuals’ abilities in SpaG – but also their mindset regarding them, and how he or she can improve them to Grade C level or better.

All this may mean that new approaches will be needed in teaching and learning about SPaG. One important aspect could lie in how written work is marked and corrected by staff, to encourage improvement.

Given that coursework assessment is being phased out in GCSE English, this process now becomes even more ‘formative’ – literally, much more a case of ‘assessment for learning’, now. More (indeed, most?) of the burden needs to sit with individual learners, for each piece and throughout the course. Marking such work needs to encourage that model; staff may actually need to do less than they have often have in the past, giving learners greater responsibility.

This technique, using agreed ‘short-hand’ symbols in margins and elsewhere to signal common SPaG issues in a more ‘engaging’ way than just crossings-out and/or insertions can also help reduce the marking burden on increasingly hard-pressed staff. This can allow them to focus more time and energy on other vital matters: not least managing learners’ own self-direction and progress.

This not a new idea, of course; nevertheless, these two models may be useful as either a starter or a comparison, where changes to marking are seen as necessary for the new situation.

Each model document is identical on pages 2 and 3: a table of simple symbols for SPaG matters, with a brief explanation and an example of the problem it addresses. In the first version, hot-linked here, however, the front page of the three explains the idea and how to apply it for teaching and training staff. The second version, here, is intended for their groups and individual learners, with that front sheet changed appropriately to explain how they can use the table and its approaches to improve the accuracy and control of their writing.

The system is designed to be used for staff and learners in any subject/vocational area at Level 2 or above — not just within dedicated English courses, at GCSE or otherwise.

The Policy Consortium welcomes comments and feedback on these sample documents, as well as suggestions for improving them.

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Mick Fletcher of the Policy Consortium investigates the underlying messages behind one of the more unexpected proposals within the current BIS consultation about extending the scope of FE Loans.

In the rush to get away at the end of term, FE people may have missed two very important contributions to the debate around localism and the decentralisation of power. In mid-June, the IPPR published its ‘Condition of Britain’ report arguing (inter alia) that ‘social reforms embodied in shared institutions are more durable that those which rely on transactions’. Subsequently, Matthew Taylor took the argument further in a review of the IPPR report on his RSA blog; in essence, he claims that positive change in the future is less likely to come from choosing the ‘right’ policies within Whitehall than from building the right institutions – ones that allow and encourage engaged citizens and communities to shape their own futures. These ideas clearly resonate with demands in the FE sector for greater college autonomy, combined with genuine local accountability.

Although there is a lot of rhetorical support for localism, putting it into practice will be difficult. Labour politicians will admit in private that their Train to Gain programme, though well-intentioned, resulted in considerable waste. They will note more openly that the recent growth in apprenticeship numbers under the coalition has similarly involved huge ‘deadweight’ costs and lots of poor-quality practice. The danger is that their answer may well be to seek further controls in a futile attempt to ‘guarantee’ quality, by giving more power over colleges to LEPs, SSCs or yet another body purporting to speak for employers.

Strong support for Taylor’s argument can however be found from an unexpected quarter. The BIS consultation on extending FE loans included a surprise proposal to transfer HNDs and HNCs from higher education to further education. The reason is that in the lightly-regulated HE system, the doctrinaire decision to remove the cap on numbers for private providers has resulted in an explosion of dubious activity and a hole in the HE budget. Private colleges have collected fees, their students have collected maintenance support and neither party seems too bothered about drop-out rates that are sky-high.

Although not perfect, the FE sector has a longer history of trying to police dubious practice; so such a transfer makes short-term tactical sense. Colleges and training providers have long been subject to a degree of regulation that doesn’t obtain in HE and would be strongly resisted by universities. There is a better answer, however.

The current problems in HE (and earlier, similar, ones in FE) derive from government seeing itself as ‘commissioning’ education and training outcomes in an open market. Instead of looking to build strong and stable educational institutions which share a vision of building a better society through education and training, Whitehall has sought a market place — where a mix of providers, some only engaged for short-term financial gain, compete to ‘deliver’ what the centre thinks it has designed. It is not clear how many times this model has to fail for politicians to get the message that it doesn’t work.

It is instructive that it was not public universities that broke the HE bank. In the FE sector, too, it is free-wheeling private provision that is responsible for the worst excesses. Although there are of course many private providers with integrity, they and FE colleges are undermined by the cowboys. All are burdened by the top-heavy regulation required to police the worst.

What is needed is to build on the idea of chartered colleges, in order to create a set of institutions that will be self-regulating and can avoid waste and scandal through internal, not external, controls. Colleges should be seen as a vital part of civic society, linked in many and varied ways with their communities and driven by educational values and mission, not by business imperatives.  Colleges (and private providers that meet the same standards) should be assured of long-term grant funding and the freedom to negotiate its use locally to meet community priorities.

The alternative is yet more central regulation — and then, yet more disappointed politicians who will wonder once again why their ambitions were subverted.

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