It is perhaps not surprising that when FE Week and the Policy Consortium invited staff across the sector to highlight the issues that really concerned them they should paint a rather troubling picture.
More than a thousand people responded to the opportunity to record what worried them most about the state of FE, and their comments make disturbing reading. It would be wrong however, to dismiss these concerns as just an inevitable consequence of allowing hard-pressed staff to let off steam — there are clear patterns in these responses which deserve serious attention.
One headline finding is the extremely high level of concern about institutional funding, common across all subsectors.
It is revealing that the highest degree of concern is among the most senior staff — those best-placed to see what is going on and perhaps what further cuts are just around the corner.
With protection being given to pre-16 school budgets, cuts in the Department for Education inevitably focus on 16 to 19-year-olds despite their already being less well-resourced than those in earlier years. With university teaching largely funded through student fees, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills funding cuts also focus on the FE sector, and with apprenticeships given priority everything else is under threat. Staff are fearful of the future for their learners and their institutions and perhaps rightly so.
Another message that comes through strongly is concern over the pace of change, whether in funding mechanisms, curriculum content or institutional arrangements. Staff report that they have not had time to assimilate one set of changes when another is upon them, giving nothing time to bed down or to settle in.
In most cases this is not hostility to specific innovations as such. There is little criticism of fundamental changes such as the move to study programmes or the new priority given to English and maths for example. What comes across is the sheer frustration of not being given a chance to get on and do a good job before the rules change yet again.
Two specific changes stand out as exceptions to this rule. Proposals to transfer apprenticeship funding to employers attracted serious criticism in a series of comments from those in training providers but also from staff in colleges. Staff echoed concerns made by many national organisations about the potential impact on the engagement of small and medium-sized enterprises with the apprenticeship programme.
Transferring funding for those with high level needs to local authorities raised similar fears for both college staff and those in independent specialist providers, sometimes linked with fears about the reduction in funding levels for learners with disabilities more generally. In both cases staff concern is focussed around a move away from established arrangements that are understood and work tolerably well to a new system that in their view threatens to destabilise provision and restrict opportunities for learners.
Several respondents were very sceptical of the inspectorate’s independence from government and the centralist influence on both inspection findings and inspection priorities. Inconsistency was also felt to be operating at a local level where individual inspectors were seen as having individual agendas leading to considerable variability.
The inspection framework and its operation were often felt to ignore the context in which individual providers were working in.
This applied to the type of provider (college, independent learning provider, etc), provision (especially LLDD/SEN) and also in addressing deficits that were perceived as the responsibility of schools rather than FE.
Finally, many comments suggest that FE staff do not see government sponsored changes to the sector as wholly legitimate; initiatives are described as politically inspired and respondents talked frequently of political ‘interference’ or ‘meddling’. There is not so much a sense of partnership between internal and external stakeholders as of the sector being ‘used’ by politicians for their own, often short term and extrinsic ends.
If political leaders are to secure sector support to take forward the reforms they believe in they will need to make far greater efforts to convince staff that they are motivated by a genuine desire to improve outcomes for learners, rather than just indulging in change for its own sake.