According to a recently released CBI Report – In Perfect Harmony: Improving Skills Delivery in England – the English skills system has undergone 28 major reform programmes in the past 30 years. The result, the report argues, is alienated firms, confused training providers and a failure to deliver on skills needs. Somewhat ironically, as is often the case with such reports, the CBI then go onto propose further reform of a current programme – the apprenticeship levy, less than 9 months after its inception in April last year.
There are several reasons why further education and skills have suffered from the scourge of constant, unconsummated and often conflicting reform programmes. One of these reasons is, I think, to be found in the breadth of what the term further education and skills encompasses. Wikipedia defines further education as: ‘education in addition to that received at secondary school, that is distinct from higher education offered in universities and other academic institutions.’ The definition is remarkably consistent from the first use I could trace, in the Spens Report of 1938. But then, as now, the definition was in relation to what FE is not – education delivered in a school, or a university – rather than what it distinctively delivers.
As time has moved on since 1938 wider and wider provision has been counted within the description FE and skills; from basic skills for adults, to alternative provision for 14-year-olds, liberal arts education for adults below degree level, ESOL, professional updating for industry, A levels, GCSE English and maths, as well as the technical and professional education which is much to the fore in current government policy. As research undertaken whilst I was at the Association of Colleges revealed, in the eyes of many stakeholders this has given the FE and Skills Sector an amorphous jack of all trades, master of none character, particularly at the national level.
When combined with the fact that few politicians or senior civil servants (Justine Greening was a notable exception) have experienced FE as a student, or as a parent of a student studying at a college or completing an apprenticeship, this lack of definition of distinctive purpose, makes FE and Skills vulnerable to frequent changes of direction and ill-informed meddling.
Vince Cable attempted to provide a more directional definition of further education with his reference to a ‘dual mandate’ to provide both vocational education for the workplace and second chances for those who have not succeeded in the school system. The mandate was well-received in the FE Sector, but was quietly sidelined by the incoming Conservative government in 2015. But even if it had gained legs, the dual mandate was first as much as an explanation for what FE had become, as it was a definition; it also better suited colleges than the full gamut of FE and skills providers. Moreover, due to the split of responsibility for FE between BIS and DfE at the time, it applied only to adult education and not the majority 16-18 business of most FE colleges.
So what is the alternative in defining a distinctive role, or roles, for further education? The solution is, I think, partly local for colleges and sectoral for independent training and third sector providers. Most essentially, it is about defining core purpose and values institution by institution and training company by training company. With a firmer sense of distinctive purpose and contribution, there is more prospect of FE and skills providers navigating inevitable fluctuations in policy with confidence and a real sense of autonomy and self-value. These are issues that I intend to explore in my forthcoming public lecture at the Institute of Education. Hope to see you there!
Martin’s lecture Defining further education: does it matter? takes place on 15th February 2018, 6.00pm, followed by a wine reception. It’s free to attend, but please register to book your place. Click on the link to register.