Article: Poor research on further education makes it easy to cut funding.

Article: Poor research on further education makes it easy to cut funding.

01st September 2014

Further education in the UK is something to be proud of. It’s efficient, agile and crammed full of talented people. For many learners, it is where they turn when they have been let down by other parts of the education system and acts as a vital route into employment.

And yet, compared to universities and schools, the sector is heavily under-researched and frequently misunderstood. Perhaps because of this, it is also under siege. Whereas universities and schools have been largely protected from the full force of government cuts, further education has been hit hard.

This is partly the fault of the sector, which at times has been too willing to accept the constraints of government funding rules and failed to speak out against changes. But a lack of research has also made it vulnerable to being pushed down the government’s priority list – there is simply not enough research on the positive impact further education has on the economy and society.

Unlike the university and school sectors, there isn’t a proliferation of academic journals and collaborative research initiatives. So many education news stories are based on research findings. Think about how much the OECD league tables dominate the headlines, for example. By being less visible in the media, and therefore playing a smaller role in public debate, it is much easier for the government to make changes like the 17.5% cut to funding for 18 year-olds.

Earlier this year the Further Education Trust for Leadership was launched to help change this. Its aim is to work with people in the sector to develop knowledge on further education leadership. It’s about innovative thinking and nailing down the sector’s role in the education system. When it comes to thinking creatively, colleges are constantly asked to “think outside the box”, particularly when forced to make efficiency savings because of funding constraints. Leaders are implored to think differently and search for solutions beyond their immediate environment.

But I don’t think the phrase is useful for the sector. During my research over the past decade, the examples of successful forward thinking I’ve come across have stemmed from colleges looking within their organisation – something that management gurus Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg strongly advocate. They believe leaders need to think insidethe box to provide a truly effective response to difficult times.

The trouble is that further education leaders often don’t have time to do this. They struggle to find the space to properly consider how their organisation interacts with others locally, how it can adapt to industry changes and how it might develop. The sector has more than enough talent to confront the challenges it faces, but people need to be given the time to use it.

Another issue is that best practice is too rarely shared between organisations. A few years ago Nissan UK won the bid to develop its Leaf electric car at its Sunderland plant and worked with Gateshead College to train hundreds of staff in the area, because there were no existing qualifications or industry standards. This required a high level of collaborative leadership, as well as an innovative approach to funding. But how many people know the Nissan story? And how many colleges discussed whether they could emulate the scheme?

Those who have led projects like this one do not need more leadership skills – they’ve got them in abundance. What they do need is space and time to develop their thinking on different issues, and on the nature of leadership itself. The well-worn phrase, “If you want something doing, ask a busy person”, may be true of tasks that need completing, but it doesn’t work for thinking. If we are to successfully respond to obstacles and opportunities, we need to create reflection time for those leading our institutions.

At the trust we want to support leaders in investigating the role further education plays in the economy and our society. And we include independent training providers, community learning centres, employers, unions and all types of colleges within this. We’re a diverse sector and this can make us hard to understand, particularly for politicians who have followed the traditional route of school and university. Unless we have a better insight into the nature of our business, it will continue to be much harder to have a strong media presence and to make our case to policy makers.

In the next few days the trust will announce its first round of fellowships. They will give leaders the opportunity to spend time away from their day job to explore leadership thinking, supported by a senior academic from the Institute of Education. We’re not going to be prescriptive about the areas people explore. The answers to the challenges we face are somewhere inside the box, but we won’t find them unless people are given the chance to think about what they might be.

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