What next for FE and Skills? Jill Westerman CBE

What next for FE and Skills? Jill Westerman CBE

30th October 2015

Recently I have been entertained by the Back to the Future predictions in the media, when the film-makers of the 80s looked forward to October 2015 with some correct predictions – voice controlled tv, the use of thumb prints, and others that weren’t – like flying cars.

A quick search shows many other examples – from the eerily correct like J Elfreth Watkins, who in 1900 predicted high speed trains, mobile phones and digital photography amongst other things and the less successful, for example Time magazine in 1966 which said that online shopping (remote retail) would never take off as ‘Women like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds’. This last is especially striking for me personally as apparently I’ve bought 97 items from amazon in the last 6 months – a figure I find hard to believe.

To me this shows the difficulty of any sort of accurate prediction of the future, and the stark truth is that we don’t know what the future will bring. But we stand a much greater chance of accuracy if our predictions are based on sound evidence. This is the basis of the work of FETL – to support the production of a body of research in our under-researched sector, which will not just help those working in FE and Skills to base decisions on facts rather than hunches, but will also, importantly, help us to shape that future.

We also need to be able to answer the question – ‘What is Further Education for?’ I don’t think there is as much consensus of opinion about this as there would be about what schools are for, or what universities are for – even amongst those of us who work in this sector.

I think the broad view of policy makers would be that the FE and Skills sector is part of the means by which we create an economically successful and socially cohesive society – the dual mandate of Vince Cable, but I suspect even this is not uncontentious, and there is even less agreement about exactly what this means or how we get there. Part of the difficulty is the tendency for governments to think in 5 year cycles with the need to demonstrate success around year 4. Short term successes don’t necessarily lead to long term public good.

I was recently reading something Tom Schuller wrote about the benefits of education as the development of different types of capital. This brought me to think about how different sorts of educational capital are prioritised at different points in our system – he talks about human capital – so qualifications, skills, knowledge; social capital – the networks which contribute to our civic life and the way in which we share common goals, and identity capital – the individual’s self-concept, life goals, enjoyment. I would add another – economic capital – the ability of the individual to contribute to the economic success of the nation.

Of course these different types of capital aren’t mutually exclusive, one of the joys of education is the multiplicity of benefits it brings, some of which are unforeseen and unexpected. Nonetheless over the last 30 years I can see how these different benefits have been foregrounded within FE and Skills as the means to achieve the overall goal – so a few years ago there was a focus on moving students to HE level qualifications (human capital) – with a clear target of 50% of young people taking part in HE. At the moment the development of economic capital, with apprenticeships as the means, is a priority and again with a very clear numerical target, although interestingly the Prevent agenda – British Values – is around social capital and has growing importance.

Equally we have seen local control of FE within the local authorities move to a strong central control (FEFC, LSC etc) and now devolution will take us back to localities once again – for those of us in Sheffield this happens next year as control of the skills budget moves to the city region. Do we know what the impact of the foregrounding of these different benefits or locations has been? We need to know if we are to return to the question –

‘What next for FE and Skills?’ – and I would re-emphasise the importance of research to provide an evidence base for future thinking (and the role of FETL in this) and more importantly – to create the future together. Having new forms of conversations and engagement with others from both inside and outside the sector is also vital. I would seek to answer the question ‘What is the FE & Skills sector for’ and then look at the evidence to see how best to get there.

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