Why the sudden rush? When further education leaders put flesh on the bones of former FE and Skills minister John Hayes’ idea of a guild for the sector, they found compelling arguments to support it. But it couldn’t and shouldn’t happen overnight, they suggested.

Martin Doel, the Association of Colleges’ Chief Executive, had thought through the proposal with some care. He concluded: ‘The Guild represents the reincorporation of colleges, but with a significant culture change away from their being directed bodies to becoming institutions that take charge of their own futures. That’s got to be a three-year journey if you really want to achieve.’ (more…)

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It is now broadly accepted that one of the factors holding back the progress of vocational education in England is the association between different types of education and social class; the snobbery that sees academic education as being for the elite whereas vocational programmes are for the masses. While this fault is now both widely recognised and indeed often decried it is also remarkably persistent – at the same time as championing apprenticeships, for example, the government is acting to remove vocational qualifications from school league tables thus signalling their second-rate status. Schools that have sought to motivate pupils by giving access to more practical types of learning, often in association with a local FE college, are chastised for offering ‘soft options’ and lacking rigour.

There are positive moves, however, and many in FE have welcomed new initiatives to introduce studio schools and University Technical Colleges (UTCs), which allow pupils to undertake a vocational specialism alongside other elements of the national curriculum. (more…)

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What does it cost to open a 14-19 University Technical College? If you are Lord Baker, Education Secretary to Margaret Thatcher, it’s upwards of £20m. If you are from Cleveland and Redcar College you get the same for £30,000 – the research grant they won from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service that multiplied into a huge range of support from local business and industry.

Let’s make another funding comparison. Accolades were rightly awarded to John Hayes, FE and Skills Minister, for wresting £210m from the Treasury, against all the odds in the recession, for adult safeguarded learning. But local authority advisers I spoke to when researching an essay for the Parliamentary Skills Group book, Open to Ideas, pointed out that it was nothing compared with the £600m dished out for free schools, over which they have no say despite the impact on local education provision.

And what do free schools bring? We have Eton launching a free sixth-form in Newham where there is already an FE college, sixth-form college and school sixth forms, all judged by Ofsted as “good” to “outstanding”. The new providers blithely suggest there is a shortage of good “academic” sixth-form places. They would not say this had they consulted those on the ground who know the picture. (more…)

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Peter Davies and Mick Fletcher coordinated the drafting of a submission to the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning, jointly with the Centre for Post-14 Research and Innovation, Institute of Education (IoE), University of London. Other Policy Consortium members contributed to the submission.

Here is the response in full  [PDF].

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Opettaja 2008 B
Pasi Sahlberg Source

Education in other countries sounds so much more interesting than our own! In Switzerland it’s the calibre of apprenticeships, in France the breadth of the Baccalaureat, in Scandinavia the quality of pre-school play. But as I see more and more examples used in political argument I begin to wonder how much we simply cherry pick from abroad to suit our pet criticism of the home system. Do we fall for the best features in other countries but fail to look at the whole, warts and all?

Despite this reservation I still cling on to the concept of a grand “natural experiment” in which contrasting approaches across the world can be usefully compared. It’s true that simply importing one fragment of a complex system – a reading scheme, a governance system, a work-related curriculum – is likely to lead to trouble when it runs up against the prevailing culture and policy environment at home. But surely there remain valid ways of learning from experience elsewhere. It’s not that it should necessarily instruct us in better ways, but surely it can inform and perhaps inspire us. (more…)

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Following David Cameron’s pledge last week to rip up employment red tape in the name of better delivery, where does this leave the promises in Lord Lingfield’s interim report on professionalism in further education (FE) to maintain teaching standards in colleges and training organisations?

In an effort to pre-empt critics of the report’s call for unregulated minimum thresholds of training and staff development, Lingfield insisted:

In all these matters we emphasize our core belief that staff training, professional updating, competency and behaviour are essentially matters between employer and employee. 

There are sufficient statutory arrangements in place through, for example, employment legislation and the requirements for staff performance management and learner safeguarding set out in Ofsted’s Common Inspection Framework, to ensure at least a threshold level of professional competence.

But measures in the Beecroft report to the Coalition Government change all that. While reforms such as the ability to fire at will may be blocked as a step too far, other aspects, including some repeal of equality laws and limits on employment tribunal payouts, will not be and, indeed, are already being pushed through.

At a glance, these measures and Lingfield’s recommendations appear to be addressing different issues – but history says otherwise. The focus in Lingfield is on matters such as the removal of mandatory status for the Institute for Learning (IfL) and an end to compulsory initial teacher education (ITE), while Beecroft is about flexibility across the whole UK workforce. The last time two such reform programmes came together, however, the effects on FE were considerable. It was the early 1990s, when radical deregulation was enacted under the then President of the Board of Trade Michael Heseltine and the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act was running its course.

By the mid-1990s, after incorporation of colleges, a quarter of the workforce was lost through redundancy and early retirement, to be replaced by unqualified part-timers. Standards of teaching and learning plummeted, according to further education inspectors; UK skills needs were not being addressed and high-profile scams and scandals such as the Halton College franchising abuses dominated media headlines.

When the unions cried foul, the then chief executive of the Colleges’ Employers’ Forum, Roger Ward, told the TES: ‘There are sufficient statutory regulations in place to ensure standards and, besides, it is for the employers to decide what’s best. They will consult the staff and managers.’
It is not surprising therefore that the unions were somewhat wary when the Lingfield interim report came out in March. But it was not only the unions; employers too had concerns. Lynne Sedgmore, Executive Director of the 157 Group, said:

We remain cautious … about the proposed replacement of various teaching registrations with ‘largely discretionary advice to employers on appropriate qualifications for staff and continuous professional development’. It is important to ensure that there is no diminution in the overall quality of the teaching profession in further education, which does need some form of oversight and support.

And here is the crunch. The problem with the Lingfield report is that – while many aspects for simplifying the system won general support – it is too often seen as not genuinely impartial. It might sound all the right notes for the Coalition Government, but it is seen among many employers and unions as deeply flawed on at least three counts.

First, the review’s committee of four experts bases the inquiry’s legitimacy on the uncritical acceptance of government deregulation policies that lack a clear evidence base. Second, among other assumptions, it virtually pre-supposes the need to remove mandatory status from the IfL, which it mistakenly sees as the FE equivalent of the General Teaching Council. Third, the inquiry group failed to cite research it had in its possession that contradicts some key recommendations. This included research evaluating FE teachers’ qualifications, commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which suggests greater success with training and qualifications such as PTLLS (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) than the Lingfield team were willing to acknowledge.

Authors of the report to BIS said: ‘Regulations have been successful in introducing a minimum level of competence among teachers and trainers through the qualifications, particularly in WBL [work-based learning] and ACL [adult and community learning] where it’s less likely teachers would have had any prior teacher training.’ Drawing on case studies, the report stressed: ‘One of the strong messages from the case studies is of the importance of maintaining momentum towards achieving the required qualifications.’

Also, the direction taken contrasts with competitor countries that education ministers cite as having a much better grip on education and training than England, including the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany. In fairness, all these points may be revisited for the final report due out in July. But by then, the bigger political picture will have moved on with further deregulation of employment legislation and further austerity cuts. So the lowest common denominator of a ‘threshold of professional competence’ suggested by Lingfield may be all that’s on offer.

Nor have the unions displayed clever tactics during the inquiry. One senior Unison source admitted some naiveté when they ‘went for the jugular’ on IfL. ‘We may have played into the hands of government‘, he said, the consequence being that unions are also marginalised in the recommendations. The University and College Union (UCU) on the other hand is more forthright. Dan Taubman, Senior National Official, said: ‘We are happy that IfL has gone, although sad for the staff who were not to blame for this whole situation.’ The notion that the IfL had already ‘gone’ may be somewhat premature but the sentiment is not altogether surprising because the teacher unions see themselves as the independent professional associations.

By putting such strong emphasis on the need to clip the wings of the IfL, Lingfield, intentionally or otherwise, shifted much of the focus away from the core issues of training and the need to build up a storehouse of good practice and exemplary work backed by sound research. Too much kerfuffle in the media and in conferences fails to distinguish between the fate of IfL and the prospects for CPD and ITE, or between the future of such training and the quality of teaching and learning across the sector. This is a point made variously over the past few weeks by City & Guilds, NIACE, the 157 Group, London University Institute of Education, Universities Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET), the Association of Colleges, UCU and NUS.

James Noble Rogers, Chief Executive of UCET, summed up the views of most when he said he was ‘appalled by the possible removal of the teacher training requirement’. There was some hope if training could be anchored in or akin to the Higher Education Academy (HEA) framework or professional standards but that could not be left wholly to employer discretion. If, as suggested, the Learning and Skills Improvement Service adopts IfL’s role, officials have already quietly made it clear to ministers that they expect the resources and capacity to take a more robust stand in raising thresholds of professionalism across the sector.

Andrew Morris, researcher, consultant and member of the Policy Consortium says:

In many professions the idea that the profession embodies specialist knowledge (and skill) is essential and that this knowledge advances, accumulates, and is passed on to each generation is central. Control of ITE and CPD processes is vital to this as well as its connection to R&D. Strong, evidence-based CPD is reckoned to be a distinguishing factor in Finland – widely acknowledged as having one of the highest performing educational systems in the world. The FE sector has always been weak on this; will the minimum threshold idea take us even further back?

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Sally Faraday and Carole Overton consider new research  into effective teaching/training and learning which strongly suggeststhat differences between ways of promoting academic and vocational learning are exaggerated and that the same good practice characteristics are to be found in both.

The changing nature of skills required for the 21st century, the need to improve the skills of the UK workforce and the current economic crisis mean that vocational education is more important now than ever. Yet despite recent improvements in provision, there can be no doubt that there is room for improvement of vocational teaching/training and learning. The 2010 Ofsted report raises issues of mediocrity and variability, which are supported by findings from others such as by Statz et al. (2004).[1] Vocational teaching/training is also often seen as narrow, with uninspiring and passive methods (Skills Commission 2009). So how to ensure that improvement happens? Should there be a change of direction? To quote the old adage – ‘if we always do what we have always done then we will get what we have always had’.

New research into teaching models, Effective vocational education and training: final report (Faraday et al. 2011) could provide a new way of thinking about vocational teaching and learning. We know that teachers use teaching models but often only part of them and in an unsystematic way. A systematic, holistic approach to the use of teaching/training models may be one way through the improvement maze and well worth a try.

An interesting finding from the study challenges common assumptions about the historic academic–vocational divide and found far more in common in the characteristics of good teaching and learning than might be supposed. At its heart, good teaching/training and learning is just that – nothing more or less, wherever it takes place.

The only significant area of difference that emerged was the context in which the learning took place. In the vocational context, applied learning is the order of the day: that is, learning involving real life, practical, hands-on experiences. Clearly, learning an emergency evacuation procedure for an aircraft or plastering a wall is more effective in a simulated or real environment. The learner’s experience is directly related to the effectiveness of their learning and the context is central to their experiences. In recent years, applied learning has spread beyond its vocational roots and become more widely used in programmes considered to be academic, such as A-levels.

These similarities in good practice suggested that there might be merit in looking more closely at the teaching models approach developed primarily in the academic schools sector and relating it to post-school vocational learning.

Across the sector it is generally accepted that quality of teaching is the key to enabling the best learner achievement. Barber and Mourshed’s (2008) review of 20 of the world’s top education systems concluded that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. So what is to be done to enable better vocational teaching/training and learning? Perhaps consider a different approach to its improvement – one that puts pedagogy at the forefront.

Work by Hopkins (2007)[2] illustrates the connections between teaching strategies, relationships, reflection and models of learning. In the Faraday et al. research, the addition of context means the framework can be used for vocational teaching/training and learning. The figure below shows the five inter-related and overlapping components that need to work in synergy. The central red diamond represents the choices that teachers/trainers make in planning and delivering any particular session.


One of the issues in any improvement is the way in which language is used to describe processes and actions. Teachers/trainers have very different understanding of words like ‘model’, for instance. The research therefore defines the main terms used so that teachers/trainers using the framework can interact with each other as well as use the intended meaning from the text. ‘Teaching models’ are defined in the research as structured sequences designed to elicit a particular type of thinking or response and achieve specific learning objectives and outcomes. We can see how the five main components are defined below.

teacher reflection

There are several teaching models that practitioners could use to examine, compare and look at improving their practice. Geoff Petty, for instance, describes two models of direct teaching in his Direct Instruction document. Many teachers use ‘enquiry’ as a teaching model concerned with finding specific information and remembering it. It has five distinct phases – engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation. Teachers/trainers know from experience that if they simply tell the learners statistics they find it boring and are unlikely to remember the information but if they use the ‘enquiry’ teaching model, learners become actively engaged in researching the information and are more likely to remember it. The impact is increased if the learners present their findings to the rest of the group.

The study found that although teachers/trainers did not generally realise that they were using teaching models in their sessions it was evident from observation that they were – at least in part. Sometimes the teaching/training and learning could have been improved by use of all the phases of the particular model.

The research concluded that the ‘Framework for Developing Effective Vocational Teaching and Learning,’ with its five inter-related components offers a clear basis for thinking about vocational teaching and learning and a vehicle for sharing and promoting effective practice. Evidence from research in the schools sector shows that learners’ attainments can be improved by using a teaching models approach but teaching models are not yet established in vocational learning. Preliminary findings are promising; what we need now is to conduct further substantial research into testing this in the vocational context.

The framework and teaching models approach may not be the ‘holy grail’ of/for vocational teaching and learning, but it does offer great potential for development. In the long term widespread adoption of the approach could lead to better learning, better teaching/training and, ultimately, better initial teacher training and continuing professional development for vocational teachers. There could also be an impact on teaching qualification specifications and course design and delivery. However, from where we are standing today, this seems a long way off. The challenge to vocational teachers/trainers, managers and staff and curriculum developers is: ‘How can you be among the first to benefit from the approach?’ Why not have a go and see what this new framework can do for you?

Sally Faraday and Carole Overton January 2012



These are the details of the full Faraday et al. report:

Faraday S, Overton C and Cooper S (2011) Effective teaching and learning in vocational education. London: Learning and Skills Network/City and Guilds. Available from the Policy Consortium website at: https://policyconsortium.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/110052RP_effective-VET_final-report1.pdf

There is also a step-by-step guide for practitioners:

Faraday S, Overton C and Cooper S (2011) Developing effective vocational teaching and learning through teaching models: a guide. London: Learning and Skills Network/City and Guilds. This is also available on the Policy Consortium’s website at https://policyconsortium.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/110053RP_effective-VTL-_final-guide1.pdf

1 Statz C, Hayward G, Oh S and Wright S (2004). Outcomes and processes of vocational learning: a review of the literature. London: Learning and Skills Development Agency.

Hopkins D (2007). Every school a great school. Maidenhead: McGraw Hill/OpenUniversity Press.


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Everyone knows what a further education (FE) college is. Or do they? When 1,000 members of the public were asked which colleges on a given list were FE, they were very confident. And yet three-quarters (75%) said Trinity College Cambridge, putting it top of the list. Eton College was second with 57%. Only one genuine FE college was on the list and that came last with just 12% identifying it.

The ICM survey, commissioned by the Association of Colleges (AoC), produced a constant flow of bizarre results, with very disturbing implications. While many people may not have the foggiest what an FE college is, it doesn’t stop the media and many of the general public slagging them off as low-standard, poor quality and a waste of time.

In fact, as my parallel research for the Parliamentary Skills Group – published in the new report Open to ideas – suggests, the less journalists know of FE, the more likely they are to denigrate colleges – or disregard them.

Confusion in the minds of the public stems from many things, says the AoC. There is the lax use of the word college as 750 schools call themselves ‘college’ – a word that is also synonymous with ‘university’. Half the people in the ICM survey insisted FE colleges were not even inspected by Ofsted; there was an implicit assumption of inferiority about them. Yet once the picture was clarified, the same people immediately saw colleges in a far more favourable light.

When it comes to the media, the AoC has had some success explaining FE during the disputes over the ending of Educational Maintenance Allowances and protests over the collapse of capital fund for building two years ago. As Ben Verinder, AoC Media Director, said: ‘there are periods in the year when we now get good press coverage’. This is, however, the exception not the rule and the pact with media collapses as soon as he tries to explain to a beleaguered news editor the complexities of the college funding regime – ‘they just don’t get it.’

But then, who really does? This brings us to my research for the Open to ideas essay, which drew on extensive interviews with 30 national journalists and Whitehall policy watchers – a core of them in the Policy Consortium. Beyond the Guardian, TES and Independent there is little serious coverage of FE and skills. The most typical ‘reporting’ is characterised by the following:

As Britain’s teenagers either celebrate or commiserate over their A-level results this weekend, a stark warning from the British Chamber of Commerce: do not go to university unless you plan to study something useful. Policy director Dr Adam Marshall said: ‘There may be a course in underwater basket weaving but that does not mean anybody will actually want to employ you at the end of it.’ Universities should be banned from running Mickey Mouse courses that are best left to further education colleges. Not only are they a waste of time but they are the very reason students facing a shortage of places are now having to pay exorbitant tuition fees.

The ill-informed piece by Camilla Tominey, Royal Editor of the Sunday Express, was disowned by Dr Marshall but the damage was done. Much coverage in a similar vein focuses first on criticism of government, second on the colleges and then on some invidious comparisons with the German dual system of training.

As I explain in the essay, few journalists have a coherent narrative of FE. Why does that matter? Because in a media-driven world this damages performance, as the CfBT report Instinct and reason  illustrates. It shows how problems in public services get reported rapidly while solutions never make the headlines. Eager-to-please (and win votes) ministers respond to an ill-informed electorate with half-cocked policies. ‘Lack of reporting leads to a lack of information to drive policies forward and this impairs the functioning of markets,’ say the authors of the CfBT report Mick Fletcher and Adrian Perry.

In the Open to ideas research, commonly cited reasons for under-reporting FE and skills were, first, that journalists went to school and university but not college and, second, that the readers’ children don’t attend college – it is not seen by news editors (the gatekeepers) as an aspirational place, despite the evidence (back to the misconceptions unearthed by the AoC). FE is also seen to fall outside the narrative. Susan Young, former TES News Editor and Express feature writer said:

One strong influence is that the way education is reported is heavily prescribed (again the gatekeeper influence). There are good schools and bad schools, traditional vs trendy, old discipline vs no discipline, and the constant deference to going private. FE is simply outside all of that and therefore not a story, as seen by news editors.

Another factor cited by journalists was the impossible complexity that arises from repeated government reform and meddling. Every government for more than two decades has pledged to free colleges from red tape and bureaucracy. Then something, maybe even something small, goes wrong and a succession of inquiries (Nolan, Leitch, Foster, etc) identify ‘problems‘ and inexorably regulation and targeted resources for skills initiatives follow with cuts from areas of so-called new freedoms in order to foot the bill.

We are now seeing this in the NHS where Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is imposing 57 new performance indicators before the new health funding regime is even in place. In FE, the net result of so much chopping and changing, official inquiries and policy reforms is a media turn-off, says journalist and author Francis Beckett:

Colleges are forced to market themselves on ‘we teach skills companies need’ rather than ‘we are socially desirable, we are second chance education’. The growing utilitarianism of their offer, which is forced on them, renders them less attractive and interesting to report on.

There is also a resultant ill-defined muddle with cumulative layers of bureaucracy, jargon and funding technicalities never quite displacing the previous sets. We see this with the attempts of New Labour to remove ‘FE‘ from the post-16 lexicon in favour of ‘learning and skills‘. It never took over but the jargon is firmly embedded while ‘FE‘ returns to the fold. Consultant and researcher Andrew Morris summed it up: ‘FE is just not a concept that works for people – it’s a muddle, an administrative category resulting from the peculiarly British way of handling public administration.’

Despite all this bureaucratic kerfuffle, there are good stories to report – Adult Learners Week and the great Homeric struggles against ignorance by 90-year-old latter-day computer buffs, the Skills Olympics which saw superlative performances by the Skills UK team in London this year. Unfortunately, while the mind-numbing complexity may suit politicians out to manipulate the system to their ends without fear of interference, journalists under increasing pressure to deliver at ever-greater speed despair and then give up. The sentiments of every journalist interviewed were summed up by Stephen Hoare, freelance and regular writer with the Times:

To set colleges free, the government needs to radically simplify the structure, the bureaucracy and the language. FE is confusing. There have been so many reforms and reports that keeping up to speed with them all is beyond a normal education hack’s remit or patience.

I’ll leave the last word with Ben Verinder who neatly draws the strands of Jo(e) Public, journalist and politician together:

Good education journalism shines a light in the labyrinth. It helps people understand and navigate through the system. But all too often those lights are obscured, overpowered or snuffed out – respectively by: editors, sub editors, news editors, general reporters and even picture editors who are as confused as any other parent and who too often obfuscate or block in-depth reporting as a result; by the politicisation of education reporting to the detriment of balance and, perhaps most disturbingly, by the rounds of redundancies during which media lose their specialist reporters. Without an informed media to guide us we will all end up bumping into walls.

Ian Nash, December 2011


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Walt Disney must be spinning in his grave. After all, what harm has Mickey Mouse

ever done to anyone? No, I can’t think of anything either, and the last time I looked

Disney was making over $33 billion a year – they must be getting something right! So

how has it come about that poor Mickey’s name has become inextricably associated

with the worthless and the risible, often, though not always, in the realm of education?

Back in the summer the Sunday Express’s Royal correspondent (why?) set finger to

keyboard and gave us this:


AS BRITAIN’S teenagers either celebrate or commiserate over their A-level results

this weekend, a stark warning from the British Chamber of Commerce: do not go

to university unless you plan to study something useful. Policy director Dr Adam

Marshall said: ‘There may be a course in underwater basket weaving but that does

not mean anybody will actually want to employ you at the end of it.’ Universities

should be banned from running Mickey Mouse courses that are best left to further

education colleges.


Where to begin? (more…)

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Peter Davies, Mick Fletcher and Maggie Greenwood discuss the case for HE in FE under the new fees regime

This paper considers how impending Government changes to the funding and fee arrangements for higher education (HE) may affect further education (FE) colleges that deliver significant amounts of HEFCE-funded higher education, and their students. It is not the intention here to debate the merits of these proposals – though they are not short of critics.[1] Rather, we want to outline what we see as the substantial opportunities for HE in FE presented by the intended reforms, and also the considerable threats that arise if these opportunities are ignored or pursued insensitively. First, however, let us consider what the changes in question are, and why they are important.  (more…)

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