100 years of women in FE and skills. Shaping the further education landscape: Alison Wolf
In the latest FETL blog on the women who shaped further education in the UK, we focus on the contribution of Baroness Alison Wolf, one of the country’s most thoughtful and influential contemporary voices on FE and skills
Born in 1949, Alison Wolf had little interest in education when she graduated from Somerville College, Oxford, planning to begin work as a financial journalist on the Daily Mail. However, a job offer to her husband, the economics commentator Martin Wolf, took her to Washington, where she completed her postgraduate studies and taught at George Washington University while working as a stringer for English newspapers. It was there that Wolf was offered her first role in policy analysis, working on a review of federal education programmes which had been commissioned by, and reported to, the Education Committees of the US Congress. She worked for some years as a policy analyst within the Federal Government and then combined freelance policy work with raising her young family.
On returning to the UK, she took up a post at the Institute of Education, University of London, where she raised funds for research, initially on mathematics teaching within work-based learning, which gave her some initial insight into further education and training, the focus of much of her subsequent work. In the early 1990s a grant from the Nuffield Foundation to undertake a national evaluation of GNVQs saw her return to policy work and the world of vocational education and qualifications. Her research led her to question the value of many of the new vocational qualifications which the government was developing, notably NVQs. Many, she found, were of no value to the students when they went out into the job market.
The work gave Wolf an enhanced profile in the media and an increased opportunity to influence policy, both as an academic and as a journalist and commentator. She became a notable critic of the general drift of government policy. Her 2002 book, Does Education Matter? Myths about Education and Economic Growth, questioned the widely accepted connection between increased education spending and economic growth and prosperity. Wolf argued that a large proportion of spending on further education and universities might be usefully redirected to teaching basic mathematical and linguistic skills at school. She was strongly critical of politicians’ attempts to ‘organize education for economic ends’, noting:
[We] have almost forgotten that education ever had any purpose other than to promote growth … To read government documents of even fifty year ago … gives one a shock. Of course, their authors recognized that education had relevance to people’s livelihoods and success, and to the nation’s prosperity. But their concern was as much, or more, with values, citizenship, the nature of a good society, the intrinsic benefits of learning.
Wolf won the Sam Aaronovitch Memorial Prize in 2008 for her critique of the Leitch report on skills, which exemplified the tendency in policymaking to prioritise ‘economically valuable skills’ and to do so by setting qualification targets, in the belief that more and more accreditation was the critical factor in improving economic productivity, and that government could ensure ‘productive’ vocational education and training through central direction of what was provided. In 2009, Wolf published An adult approach to further education, a detailed and persuasive critique of government policy on FE, the move towards over-centralisation under Labour and the increasing focus of education policy on narrow economic outcomes. She noted that a decade of ‘tighter and tighter central regulation’ and ‘endless reorganisation’, premised on the conviction that ‘the only forms of education and training that justify government subsidy are those that contribute directly to economic productivity’, had resulted in the disappearance of non-vocational adult education from state-subsidised institutions, with no discernible gains in terms of productivity or wage growth. A new model for further and adult education was required, Wolf contended, in which further education subsidies ‘go directly to and through individuals’ and provision responds directly to their preferences and choices rather than to ‘governments’ purchases on their (supposed) behalf’. She argued against loans for ‘occasional’ learning such as evening courses, calling for the creation of individual learning accounts to support this form of education.
In 2010, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government commissioned Wolf to conduct a review of pre-19 vocational education and training and to tackle the long-standing weakness of vocational education in the UK. It was a huge undertaking and a significant responsibility, which Wolf felt acutely, working around a clock to deliver the report while political attention was still focused on the issue. The Wolf Report, published in 2011, argued that while there was some very good practice in vocational education, too many further education courses did not offer a pathway to work or to further training or education. Meanwhile, it said, schools were being encouraged to direct academically weaker pupils into alternatives to GCSEs which had no labour market value and did not help them progress. It called for pupils to study a core of academic subjects until they are 16 and for a greater focus on achieving a Grade C in English and Maths, at both pre- and post-16. The funding system, Wolf argued, encouraged schools and colleges to put students through a succession of low-level qualifications, many of questionable labour market value, but not to improve their core English and maths skills where they were lacking. Funding for pupils aged 16 to 19 should be per student rather than per qualification, she recommended, with good and accurate general careers information, advice and guidance allowing them to navigate their way through a much simplified, more coherent system. The report remains an important touchstone in thinking about vocational education and training in the UK.
Wolf continues to combine journalism, broadcasting and policy work with her role as Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, where she is Director of the International Centre for University Policy Research at King’s Policy Institute and Director of the university’s MSc programme in Public Sector Policy and Management. She was also one of the founders of the King’s College London Mathematics School, a state school for 16–19 year olds which enrols mathematically gifted students from across the London region, as well as providing outreach to 14–16 year olds, and was its first Chair of Governors. She received a CBE for services to education in 2012 and, in 2014, became a crossbench life peer, as Baroness Wolf of Dulwich. Wolf’s influence on UK education policy is perhaps greater than ever and she continues to write and comment on further and vocational education and on the relationship between the world of education and the world of work. As ever, her work is characterised by a willingness to challenge orthodoxies, a forensic attention to the detail of policy and a commitment to ensuring education does what it is meant to do and provides young people and adults with the opportunities they deserve to reach their potential.