Last month marked my first decade in FE. This time 10 years ago I’d just about finished my induction at City College Plymouth (then Plymouth College of FE), couldn’t grow a beard (many say I still can’t) and was probably just about used to calling my teachers by their first names.
If there is one mantra I’ve heard more than any other in that time it’s that FE suffers from an almost absent profile among our national policymakers and decision makers.
Yet, the start of the 2015/16 academic year has seen a plethora of high profile appearances for FE.
The think-tank Skills Minister Nick Boles played a role in founding, Policy Exchange, issued a call for half a billion pounds to be diverted from higher education to FE; the principals of Northampton College, Hackney Community College, Central Sussex College and Heart of Worcester College have all recently been called to give evidence to parliamentary select committees; and that’s before even getting started on the development of a new business tax to fund apprenticeships, a major Ofsted report on apprenticeship quality, the passage of legislation to enable greater devolution of adult skills money to local areas, and the first wave of area reviews and college merger announcements.
I don’t know about you, but I see very little sign that things will be slowing down for us any time soon.
One area not being talked about all that much at the moment is community learning. Some might argue that this is a good thing — not talking about it might mean its relatively sidelined £215m budget might just fall behind Chancellor George Osborne’s sofa in the spending review and be spared from damage.
After all, it’s one of the few adult education budgets that’s done alright so far; 15/16 allocations are near enough the same as last year compared to more than £400m of adult skills budget cuts.
Late last month, without fanfare, the Skills Funding Agency published some of the findings of the Community Learning Learner Satisfaction Survey for 2014/15 [see feweek.co.uk for link].
The findings, to me, begin to add some helpful weight and context for the debates to come about community learning. The survey was carried out by more than 32,000 learners in 170 providers and the profile of learners that responded closely matches the learner population nationally; almost three quarters of community learning learners were women, 72 per cent of survey responses were from women, for example.
Traditionally, learner satisfaction results show that community learning learners are more satisfied with aspects of their course than learners in mainstream FE. The 14/15 results appear to continue this trend; community learning learners recorded higher satisfaction with pre-course information, quality of teaching, feeling listened to and quality of advice about what to do after the course.
To be clear, I’m not talking down the rest of the sector here. These are very high results all around. The results are reported as averages out of ten, where zero is “very bad” and 10 is “very good”. In eight out of the 10 satisfaction scoring questions, the results are at least nine. In the mainstream FE survey, they are all at least eight. Community learning learners rated very highly the quality of teaching, with a score of 9.4, support from staff, also 9.4, and respect from staff, scoring 9.6. The areas learners scored the lowest was pre-course information and post-course advice, but even these had high scores of 8.6 and 8.8 respectively.
The report breaks down these questions, and further questions on outcomes and impacts, further by gender and age group.
For example, one of the highest scoring main outcomes for community learning learners under age 40 was ‘progression to another course’ and for learners aged over 40 was ‘improvement in health or wellbeing’. The report also demonstrates how community learning learners experience greater beneficial outcomes than they initially expect when starting a course.
So the numbers look good, and paint a positive picture from the perspective of learners on paper. There must continue to be a role for community learning. The questions now are whether there will be greater local control, who benefits and, of course, who pays?