An ‘optimist’s’ view of the next five years of government

Bill Lucas shares his “optimist’s” view of the five years of the next Parliamentary term.

People who work in FE are resilient and resourceful. So despite the obvious financial challenges we will all face, I am confident that colleges, independent learning providers, universities, schools, charitable bodies, research agencies and anyone else involved in learning and skills have the potential to thrive in an unfamiliar political landscape.

But we will need both to change and not to change if we are to seize the moment. Three immediate opportunities come to mind.

First, we have a real chance to focus on the quality of the apprentice experience (rather than on quantity).

Second, we must hold to our values for the wider purposes of education and think expansively, not restrictively about the nature of learning.

And third, we have to become more holistic in thinking and acting across government departments.

Let me start with a focus on something on which all the main political parties are in agreement, the importance of apprenticeships.

In campaign mode would-be ministers told us how many hundreds of thousands more apprentices they would create. All their emphasis was on numbers.

While we absolutely have to have, as the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning put it, ‘a clear line of sight to work’ in vocational education, we equally need to have vertical and horizontal progression routes and much better coordinated planning

Now, we need to think about the quality of what we offer this important group of learners. With my colleagues at City & Guilds, 157 Group and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, we have looked in depth at the pedagogy of apprenticeships and shown how it is possible to go beyond simply training reliably skilled men and women for a range of occupations.

For we also need resourceful individuals (who can do things which they have not been taught and think on their toes). Apprentices need business-like attitudes, a much broader set of literacies than previously assumed (especially graphical and digital) and the highest possible levels of craft and professional pride.

And they need to be lifelong learners with the skills for personal and social growth they will need to thrive in uncertain times.

For they may well have several careers and many jobs to navigate. In Remaking Apprenticeships: powerful learning for work and life we described the best kinds of teaching and learning methods to achieve the kinds of broad outcomes above.

We are convinced that, unless we create rich, relevant and challenging learning experiences for apprentices, employers will not want to employ them and potential apprentices will choose another route instead.

Secondly, while of course I want the kinds of success typically measured by tests and examinations, we also have a moral duty to prepare learners for a lifetime of active citizenship.

This, as the Confederation of British Industry has argued powerfully in Ambition for All, requires them to develop certain key habits of mind such as grit, resilience, curiosity, creativity, emotional intelligence and sensitivity to global exchanges as well as academic or vocational expertise.

With my colleague Guy Claxton I have laid out this argument in more depth in Educating Ruby: what children really need to learn. The arguments we make apply equally to schools, colleges and universities. We have to be expansive in other ways, too. Specifically we need a more explicit use of research in FE, an expansion from a teaching role to a researcher one. John Hattie has demonstrated unequivocally how this shift in identity improves learner outcomes.

Our own Expansive Education Network has worked with a number of colleges — from Highlands on Jersey to Trafford in Manchester — to use action research as a means of developing teacher expertise in order to produce outstanding learners.

Third on my wish list is for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education (and Department for Work and Pensions) to be much more grown-up and joined up in their planning and acting.

While we absolutely have to have, as the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning put it, ‘a clear line of sight to work’ in vocational education, we equally need to have vertical and horizontal progression routes and much better coordinated planning.

The first two items on my wish list are achievable by a combination of clear leadership and a determination to use existing research and evidence.

The third, as we found during the last Government, will be harder to achieve as long as the geographical distance between the departments clouds ministers’ abilities to think collectively.

But I am an optimist.

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