What is the future of further education? (We’ve been here before.) (updated)

25 Sep

Update: 25 September 2015
Letter from General Secretary Deborah Lawson in TES:

“In praise of community learning”

“Stephen Exley makes an excellent case for the importance of adult and community learning (ACL) for adults (“Get ready to fight”, Further, ‘TES’, 18 September 2015). 

“To that, I would like to add the positive impact ACL has on families. Improving parents’ literacy and numeracy, for example, means that they can, in turn, support their own children’s learning and educational attainment.      

“Further education’s key role in enhancing the lives of families has been overlooked for too long. I urge the Government to ensure that FE’s funding is prioritised and protected.”  

(original letter)

21 July 2015:

What is the future of further education? (We’ve been here before.)

It seems that further education colleges in England (again) face an uncertain future.

There has been a “rapid decline” in the finances of the further education sector in England, warns the National Audit Office or ‘Meltdown’ in FE college finances” according to the BBC headline.

The TES reports thatColleges face axe in government’s streamlined vision of post-16 education”: 

“Major reform of post-16 education and training institutions in England is needed to deal with the ‘significant’ financial pressures they face, according to a new government paper”.

Reviewing post-16 Education and Training Institutions says there will need to be ‘fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers’ in future…this will allow greater specialisation, creating institutions that are ‘genuine centres of expertise’ that can support progression up to a high level in professional and technical disciplines….the Department for Education and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will start a programme of area-based reviews of 16-plus provision, ‘and do so quickly’.

“The reform was hinted at last month in a speech by skills minister Nick Boles, who questioned whether the general FE college model was right for the future when resources were constrained.

“The paper says that although there are already ‘many excellent’ FE colleges, ‘substantial change is required’ to achieve the government’s objectives of creating high quality routes to employment and responding better to local employer needs while maintaining tight fiscal discipline.

“‘These objectives can only be delivered by strong institutions, which have the high status and specialism required to deliver credible routes to employment, either directly or via further study,’ it says.”

Voice is concerned that college mergers and other forms of ‘rationalisation’ are driven primarily by financial considerations rather than educational factors: 

In the short term, mergers tend to create instability, which, in turn, affects quality of teaching.  Research indicates that larger colleges do not inevitably provide more effective education.  In particular, when a larger college takes over a smaller one, this can easily result in asset-stripping and a general loss of provision and social cohesion, to the detriment of the community in which the smaller college was situated.”

Voice has also been involved in the save adult learning and joint union education funding campaigns.

What is FE for?

The Association of Colleges has, rightly, defended colleges’ “essential” role in “economic growth”.

However, isn’t there more to FE than economics and “routes to employment”?

Is part of its problem a lack of understanding of its purpose? It seems that further education has an image problem and may need to be rebranded.  

FE colleges form one of the biggest sectors of education although it is not generally understood by the general public. In part, this is because colleges are quite different from each other and provide different courses and qualifications”.

Vince Cable has claimed that government officials wanted to axe all further education colleges in England and Wales to save money. The former Business Secretary said that he blocked the move in 2010 – despite being told by civil servants in his department that “nobody will really notice”.

Perhaps the roots of this problem can be traced back to incorporation in the 1990s, which effectively turned colleges and universities into private enterprises rather than public sector organisations. 

Before then “non-vocational” courses for adults that enabled them to pursue interests and acquire skills which were not necessarily relevant to their employment and did not lead to recognised occupational qualifications or any qualifications at all were “part of a culture which deemed education a ‘good thing’… an example of ‘lifelong learning’ before that became management jargon.”

We’ve certainly been here before, as various reviews into the purpose and nature of FE and concerns over funding, as reported in Voice’s magazine in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2006 (when Voice was PAT) can testify.

In the words of Helena Kennedy in Learning Works (FEFC 1997):

“Yet, despite the formidable role played by further education, it is the least understood and celebrated part of the learning tapestry.

“Further education suffers because of prevailing British attitudes. Not only does there remain a very carefully calibrated hierarchy of worthwhile achievement, which has clearly established routes and which privileges academic success well above any other accomplishment, but there is also an appalling ignorance amongst decision-makers and opinion-formers about what goes on in further education. It is so alien to their experience.

“Further education’s reach is extensive. It has been at the heart of vocational training in a multiplicity of forms – full-time study, part-time study, evening class and day release, in the workplace and out of it. It is the first choice for many young people at 16. Adult education classes have meant added enrichment for many who have already benefited from education and see continuous learning as one of life’s pleasures.

“Further education has been an alternative route to success for many young people who have foundered in the school system, frequently providing another avenue to university education.

“It is further education which has invariably given second chances to those who were forced by necessity to make unfulfilling choices. It said ‘try again’ to those who were labelled as failures and who had decided education was not for the likes of them. It is here, above all, that opportunities have been provided for those caught in the cycle of low-skilled jobs and unemployment who want to better themselves; here, that so many can train or retrain; here, that there is work with refugees and members of immigrant groups to acquire English language skills, or with ex-offenders to facilitate rehabilitation, or with underachievers to fulfil their potential.

“It is because the achievements in further education are so rarely lauded that we have failed to recognise further education’s potential as a vital engine not only of economic renewal but of social cohesion.”

Do let us know your thoughts… 

Tag: Further education

Tag:  vocational

Introduce a statutory national pay and conditions structure for all staff in further education in England and Wales.  

“The pay and conditions of FE staff have been eroded in recent years and needs to be addressed to prevent a crisis in recruitment and retention. Pay and conditions must be enhanced to reflect the increasing and changing role in the education system and the current lack of parity with school staff.”  


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7 Responses to “What is the future of further education? (We’ve been here before.) (updated)”

  1. Richard Fraser 24. Jul, 2015 at 9:52 am #

    “FE sector cuts will save just £60 million, minister reveals” (TES) https://www.tes.co.uk/news/further-education/breaking-news/fe-sector-cuts-will-save-just-%C2%A360-million-minister-reveals

  2. Richard Fraser 16. Dec, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Funding crisis: http://blog.voicetheunion.org.uk/?p=13042

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