Further education’s struggle for survival may not be quite on a par with Tom Cruise battling the Syndicate — that network of dastardly operatives out to establish a new world order following the demise of the IMF.
Nevertheless, it looks increasingly like a Mission Impossible to many people in the sector. Well, they do seem to be bearing the brunt of austerity after the near collapse of the world’s banks. And the network of — maybe not quite as sinister — ministers and civil servants certainly wants to see a radically different world order for colleges and other providers.
“Mission impossible” sums up the views of teachers, managers, leaders, directors and governors interviewed in-depth six months on from the Policy Consortium/FE Week annual survey. This representative group of 32 from the 700-plus original respondents was asked whether they were more optimistic than around Easter time and prior to the General Election. Had minsters set out a fair and effective reform programme and what impact was envisaged?
The results published this week are disheartening. As one might expect, cash concerns and low staff morale feature prominently — this is austerity after all and it is symptomatic of the wider public sector. That said, there is equally a remarkable sense of determination to make reforms succeed provided they have the wherewithal, freedom from central constraints and flexibility to respond to local and national need rapidly. And there’s the rub.
What emerges from interviews at every level is concern over inconsistency, the rise in bureaucracy despite repeated ministerial pledges to the contrary and a restrictive target-driven culture focusing almost exclusively on an ill-defined notion of apprenticeships. Such initiatives are being developed piecemeal, on the hoof (and in some cases cutting across each other). There is irritation over the way the latest consultation document specifically equates commitment to training with involvement in apprenticeships, even though this is patently inappropriate for many learners.
There is incoherence and contradiction from government around pressing issues such as the wind down of adult education and the end of mandated English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol), negating wider social cohesion policy. A lack of consultation over apprenticeships means employers, especially small to medium-sized enterprises, will have little real ownership. Nor are reforms likely to increase employer confidence in the sector. Many people in the interviews reported a lack of sufficient and adequately qualified teachers to fulfil maths and English policy. And, most of all, there can be no coherence in conducting area reviews while schools can stand outside.
Were this just about FE then that would be bad enough. But the key threats are to economic revival through lack of skills for work and social cohesion through reducing services to people who are most in need. So, the FE practitioners say, they are teaching maths without maths teachers, selling loans to a public that rejects them and trying to integrate communities while ESOL is cut, etc.
To paraphrase the majority of people interviewed, what they are saying is ‘give us the right vehicle or change the destination because we can’t get where you want like this’.