Mick Fletcher reflects on the findings of the House of Lords Social Mobility Committee’s report on improving the transition from school to work.
If I have one big criticism of the important new report from the House of Lords Social Mobility Committee it is that the title ‘Overlooked and left behind’ implies neglect of those young people not on the A-level route to higher education.
In fact, what the report documents in impressive detail is better described as abuse.
Provision for this group of young people has not been overlooked — rather it has been subjected to an endless stream of ill-thought out interventions accompanied by a deliberate and systematic reduction in the resources available to support them.
Disadvantaged young people have not so much been left behind as thrown overboard and left to sink or swim.
The findings of the enquiry will not come as a surprise to those working in FE, but they still make shocking reading.
They set out clearly how the FE sector, already less well-resourced than 11-16 schools, has borne the brunt of education cuts.
They remind us of the further cut for those aged 18, cynically justified by the claim that they have already benefitted from the meagre remains of the enrichment budget.
Disadvantaged young people have not so much been left behind as thrown overboard
They point up the contrast between the 15 hours teaching per week, which is all that English FE can afford with three years of 30 hours per week that is the norm in many of our continental counterparts.
The committee is also right to highlight the destruction of independent careers information advice and guidance, the last step in which was the delegation of responsibility to schools without a budget to do it properly and every incentive to offer partial advice.
It is right to highlight the corrosive effect of inter-institutional competition, ramped up and distorted by league tables and high stakes inspection.
Most important of all perhaps, it pinpoints the gaps in government policymaking — not just the damaging division between BIS and DfE, but also the lack of a vision for anything other than universities and apprenticeships.
While the committee is clear about the problems and how they work together to frustrate attempts to improve social mobility, their recommendations lack some of the power of the analysis.
In some respects, they risk allowing policymakers to wander off down the same blind alleys as in the past.
They talk for example of the need to make the system of vocational qualifications more coherent, one noble baroness going so far as to describe current arrangements as gobbledygook.
Yet the report itself notes that the low visibility of many vocational qualifications is in large part due to constant churn driven by previous unsuccessful attempts to standardise and simplify.
The last thing FE needs is a further bout of qualifications ‘reform’.
In a similar way, repeating well-worn clichés about the need to increase the status of vocational education misses the point.
It is not vocational education that has low status, but occupations like care work and plastering and the training that leads to them.
Well intentioned advocacy of the need to raise the status of the vocational will once again be hijacked by engineers to justify more investment in higher technical training — which may be a good thing, but is something else entirely.
The real message of the report perhaps is not headlined in a specific recommendation, but it is there if you look for it.
It is clear from analysis of both English practice and that in more successful jurisdictions that the problem is not that we are doing the wrong things.
Everyone agrees we need to focus on English and maths (though not just GCSE), on building stronger local links between education institutions and employers, providing quality work experience; and providing clear impartial guidance to young people.
We don’t need another ‘reform’ programme or another attempt to push busy employers into a so-called ‘driving seat’.
We just need institutions that are much better resourced and educators who are allowed to get on with it.