Former House of Commons Education Select Committee specialist Ben Nicholls is head of policy at London’s Newham College. He writes exclusively for FE Week, every month.
Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Singapore for a few days with MPs. Once we’d got used to the temperature, and established that smoking and gum-chewing weren’t great ideas, we had an enjoyable and hectic week visiting schools, colleges and government agencies.
A highlight of the visit was the Institute of Technical Education, which provides high-quality technical and vocational education in a range of areas, from catering to computing.
Everywhere you looked, brilliant lecturers were offering innovative and engaging teaching to motivated students, in top-class facilities.
On the flight home, in between episodes of vintage sit-coms, I wondered why I’d never seen provision like that in England. Now that I’ve been working in the FE sector for two months, I realise that such provision — from the brilliant lecturers to the motivated students — is all around. The difference is that in Singapore everyone talks about it.
Readers of FE Week don’t need a new arrival to the sector to tell them how amazing provision can be, but perhaps it bears repeating.
Much has been made of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s first report as Ofsted chief inspector, where he argued that the learning and skills sector was not improving, but the same Sir Michael agreed before the Commons Education Committee recently, that this was a “phenomenally important” sector — and the report itself acknowledged “many good, outstanding and sometimes genuinely world class providers”.
He suggested that some colleges and principals felt “neglected”, and called for the Government to “shine a spotlight”.
I couldn’t agree more. There’s clearly lots of amazing provision, and the sector does get less attention — from government, the media, etc — than schools and universities. And yet, as any lighting technician would know, it’s hard to shine a spotlight on a stage where the actors, however talented, are reluctant to come out from behind the curtains.
It’s sad that it took a trip to the Far East for me to realise just how special the sector is”
A quick look through old reports confirms what I suspected — during my two-and-a-bit years with the education committee, only a handful of written submissions came from FE colleges, despite a number of inquiries. Busy principals and other staff lack the time to contribute to every consultation in what can sometimes feel like a never-ending succession from the Westminster-Whitehall village, but surely we should do everything in our own power to move away from the ‘Cinderella’ image talked about by Sir Michael?
The same is true of the defensive reaction by some to the Ofsted report itself. While understandable, it is by being proactive and positive about what FE offers to so many people, and to society more widely, that greater political clout will come, rather than supporting the status quo and batting back any criticism (however unreasonable).
I feel proud and privileged to have joined the FE sector at what could be a hugely exciting time, and I am in awe of the amazing work the colleges I’ve already come across are doing, and want to do.
It’s sad, though, that it took a trip to the Far East for me to realise — despite working in education policy — just how special the sector is.
Part of this problem lies outside our own doors, and the fact that FE sits between two government departments, for example. The range of policies over a number of years hasn’t helped the sector; neither has the fact that so few policy-makers have FE backgrounds.
But there is a bit we can start to cure: in selling ourselves outside the boroughs we sit in, contributing to debates, responding to consultations, and encouraging students and colleagues to do the same.
It may seem like simply another thing to add to already-overflowing piles of work, but it might be a small price to pay if it means fewer poor decisions are made for (and to) the sector as a whole. FE is too good a secret to keep to ourselves.