The hard work in designing, analysing and interpreting on the FE & Skills Survey that featured in the last edition of FE Week was carried out by the Policy Consortium. Nick Warren outlines the process.

The FE & Skills Survey 2015 revealed a higher level of concern than we anticipated about government priorities, mentioned in a remarkable 16 per cent of responses as of greater concern than funding. This has surprised us. It may not surprise you.

Research is worth little if it does not sometimes come up with surprising findings. And those in the annual survey conducted by the Policy consortium in partnership with FE Week demand attention, particularly in the light of the General Election results.

Recent history and the election campaign have shown us that aside from apprenticeships no one in Whitehall has much conception of what FE does or what impact the shifting funding and policy imperatives have on the day-to-day work of the sector.

Yet, across the nation, FE continues to deal with (according to the latest figures from the Association of Colleges) a simply astonishing 3.1 million students each year. Furthermore, FE is in a constant state of reinventing itself to respond to rapidly changing funding and policy priorities. We have a lot to be proud of. We adapt.

We needed to identify a range of things that concerned the entire sector, including governors, principals, teaching staff and admin staff alike

We decided to find out last year what those at the chalk face thought and how the sector looked and felt from the inside. It turned out to be a bigger job than we expected. It seems simple, but we had to agree what to ask and how much free response to offer.

Anyone who has tried to devise a survey will know how hard it is. We set out to discover what kept people awake at night, but to do so we had to take an educated guess at what kept people awake at night.

We needed to identify a range of things that concerned the entire sector, including governors, principals, teaching staff and admin staff alike. See the sequence? I started from the “top” there out of habit, I realise. We should start from delivery, because that is the “top”. We also wanted to give scope to people to express their views on things we had not thought of.

We thought it important to make the questions as neutral as possible across the topics we eventually settled on and to enable people to enlarge on or explain their answers.

A survey team of around a dozen Policy Consortium members, each with specialist expertise, sifted the results and made sense of the figures and comments in their narrative commentary. The open responses in the “anything you want to add” question 33 were grouped thematically. A copy editor kept us in line. A lot of people are involved and no one gets paid.

We might have expected a good deal of moaning and special pleading, but in fact the majority were measured in their responses.

The sector did not let us down. If anything, concerns were even more sharply focussed and were strikingly consistent.

Our colleague Mick Fletcher, commenting on the broad sweep of the survey, acutely noted that funding cuts, which we might have expected to be at the top of the list took second place to a range of other concerns clustered around “systemic failure”: the status of the sector, competition, institutional viability and the impact on learners.

After the first survey was published we were invited to address the Labour Business, Innovation and Skills front bench team in the Lords. The Government team expressed no such interest.

By the time you read this the election will be over and we might even have a new Government. The publication date this year was carefully chosen. If and when we know the names of the BIS, Government and Opposition teams (and whether FE even remains in BIS) the report will go to them. We hope they take the chance to read and reflect.

The full report will be available early next week.