Past, present and future of FE and Skills
The narrative around further education is changing and there is a greater concentration on the future. There are more wonks, MPs, and practitioners talking about the future of FE and Skills than I have seen in my, albeit short, but immersive experience of the sector.
What I think is contributing to this:
First, with start of a new government it is natural for a vision to be set out and pathways to meet these goals prescribed. There is a lot of anticipation for the Treasury’s Spending Review in November and the rumour mills are whirring with the potential cuts that could be coming for the FE budget. This Government has a clear idea of what the FE and Skills sector should look like and what political levers need to be pulled to get there. Area reviews, the apprenticeship programme, national colleges are all part of the means to this end
Second, is the mounting concern for the future of the further education sector from outside of the sector. For those who have been involved with the skills system, concern is not new. Funding pressures, increased competition, and ideology have been a constant worry, but this message is finally starting to permeate beyond our immediate audience.
The Public Accounts Committee this past week looked at the financial sustainability of the FE sector. They grilled (well, maybe lightly braised) Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary BIS, Peter Lauener, Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency/Education Funding Agency and Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary at the DfE, about the state of the sector and its future. The focus of this inquiry was on the NAO’s findings that highlighted the significant financial difficulty FE colleges are facing and the dramatic increase of colleges operating in deficit. The Committee seemed alarmed by the sudden decline of the sector, and was particularly troubled by the lack of long term budgeting available to college principals, the scope of the area reviews, and the level of intervention expected over the next few years.
Another recent example where FE is finding a louder voice is through Policy Exchange, a favourite think-tank of this government. Policy Exchange has not traditionally researched FE and skills as much as schools and higher education, but in the past three months it has released two reports recommending that funding be redirected from schools and HEIs to FE colleges. This might not be a solution that many in the sector had hoped for, but that FE is receiving this level of attention will be welcomed.
Concern about the impending financial crisis in FE and the impact it will have on learners and communities is reaching parts of the policy world that it used to struggle to penetrate.
This leads nicely into my third point, the thinking around FE has grown over the past year. Since Professor Alison Wolf lamented the lack of good up to date research in the sector three new bodies have been set up to address research in FE, with another (ETF’s Vocational Education and Training Centre) in the works. The Centre for Post-14 Education and Work, part of University College London’s Institute of Education was launched in September 2015; the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) part of LSE was set up earlier this year; and, of course, the Further Education Trust for Leadership the independent think-tank set up by Dame Ruth Silver over a year ago.
These organisations have all been working to increase the research base in further education, and the effect is already being felt. We are seeing greater analysis of past policies, better knowledge of present policy, and a welcome attempt at a longer term vision for FE and Skills.
If you are interested in hearing more about the future of further education, FETL is hosting a parliamentary symposium on the future of FE and skills – see here for more details.