Why further education needs a 2020 vision

Why further education needs a 2020 vision

12th December 2019

Increased investment in further education is welcome - but a fresh vision is also needed, writes Dame Ruth Silver

When I wrote my foreword to the Further Education Trust for Leadership’s (FETL) first major publication, Remembered Thinking, in 2015, I described further education as “a Rubik’s cube of a thing, adept at dealing with the colourful twists, turns and about-turns in policies, purses, politicians and partners”.

A lot has changed since but I think this description still holds up. FE remains a sector known for its adaptability and resourcefulness. It is sensitive to the changing shape of our politics and economy, yet also – and partly because of this readiness to adapt and change – poorly understood and poorly served by policy and policymakers.

In a sense, this flexibility and resilience is a considerable strength: without it, I doubt the sector would have been able to survive the deep and painful budget cuts that have accompanied cycle after cycle of reform over the past decade. Yet, it is in some senses also a weakness. The sector does not have a clear brand or mission. Its breadth and complexity means that it can be chipped away at without anyone outwith the sector taking much notice.

Undoubtedly, things have begun to change. Further education funding has been granted a degree of stability, though it remains some way below pre-austerity levels and most colleges still operate under a cloud of financial uncertainty. Brexit, for all the dreadful baggage it drags in its wake, has brought with it recognition that we will soon have to wean ourselves off our Premier League-like addiction to bringing in foreign-trained talent, and has increased the policy focus on further education and its role in developing homegrown skills and talent. Finally, there is now broad consensus across all the main parties that we need to invest more in further education.

This is reflected in the parties’ general election manifestos. The Conservatives have promised £1.8 billion in capital “estate upgrade” funding for FE colleges, alongside £3 billion over five years for a new National Skills Fund and a commitment to creating 20 institutes of technology.

Labour, meanwhile, has undertaken to provide a lifelong entitlement to free training up to level 3, as well as six years of training at levels 4–6, with maintenance grants for disadvantaged learners, as part of an integrated National Education Service.

FE ‘vital to the UK economy’

The Liberal Democrats’ flagship FE policy is a promise to give every adult a “skills wallet” worth £10,000 to spend on education and training, at any point in their lives. They also pledge to invest an extra £1 billion in further education and to expand the apprenticeship levy into a wider “skills and training levy”. Both Labour and the Lib Dems indicate a commitment to reform Ofsted in order to address our disproportionate and overbearing system of accountability.

All of this, to my mind, represents a welcome change of pace following a lost decade of short-sighted and heavy-handed policy reform, savage budget cuts and ill-informed ministerial meddling. The pledges of new investment are overdue and necessary, and it is particularly pleasing to see Labour and the Lib Dems addressing the narrowness of the recent government’s focus on apprenticeships, and seeking to place further education in the context of wider, more comprehensive and holistic thinking about education.

Lib Dem manifesto: Skills wallets and funding

Labour manifesto: A National Education Service and adult education

Conservative manifesto: £3bn for ‘national skills fund’

It is exciting, too, to see all parties pledging to do more to engage the hardest to reach and the increased recognition given to the educational and training needs of adults.

It is high time we started addressing this issue frankly and intelligently and taking seriously the need to rebalance education funding to reflect these changes. Technological change and the imperative to keep pace with innovation is another key challenge, with which we have only really begun to engage.

Addressing these issues, and maximising FE’s potential contribution to creating a fairer, more equal and prosperous country, demands not only that we do things differently – we must also think about things differently. This, for me, means two things. First, it means thinking about further education in a sensitively holistic way, recognising its overlaps and connections with other parts of the tertiary system and not pitting one part of the system against the other. We need to recognise what each part, uniquely, contributes and how these parts can work together to ensure a tertiary offer that is fair, comprehensive and flexible. And we must ensure that government departments and sectors work together in a more collaborative way, both nationally and at a devolved level.

Second, we need to be positive, hopeful and ambitious in our own thinking. This is in large part why I set FETL up in the first place. For too long, the sector has been pushed along by wave after wave of policy change, propelled, all too often, by a fear of failure and an anxiety about what policy tsunami might surge our way next. We need to take the tiller and steer our boat to safer, more abundant waters. We need our own vision of the future. And we need to generate our own thinking in order to do that, looking everywhere and elsewhere as we move forward into new agendas and contexts. FETL has never pretended to have all the answers. Our aim has been to help the sector to develop the knowledge and capabilities necessary to be the autonomous agents of generative change.

It is important to understand that we start from a low base, not only in terms of investment and infrastructure, but philosophically, too. For much of the past two decades, politicians and policymakers have been in the grip of a meagre utilitarian vision of education in which young people feature disproportionately and only economically useful skills are deemed valuable. Yet the challenges of the future demand a population that is not merely job-ready (whatever that means these days), but also resilient, adaptable, collaborative and, perhaps most importantly of all, willing to learn throughout life. I hope the next decade will be the one in which we emerge from this narrow way of thinking and begin to chart our own course to a hopeful future.

Dame Ruth Silver is president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership. Many of the issues raised in this article will be discussed at FETL’s Winter Symposium, which takes place on 11 December in the House of Commons