Climate Change, Covid-19

FE has been highly responsive in the pandemic – now to face climate change

13 Mar 2022, 6:00

With the government’s final climate change strategy due next month, Tim Oates says sound policy is needed for FE to shape the green economy

The global pandemic has prompted a discussion in England about schools and “the future of assessment”. But there are bigger, global questions around the future of education that we need to debate too. One that simply cannot be avoided is the impact climate change is having on economies, industries and individuals.

The essential carbon reduction targets that are being adopted by nations around the world are moving us to radically different economic equilibria. New jobs are being created in the green economy, but these advances will come at a cost to abandoned technologies.

Financial analysts are already growing nervous at the extent of stranded assets in industries affected by these tectonic shifts.

With stranded assets there also will be stranded workers. These will not be young people – they will tend to be older, specialist workers, with families, mortgages and purchasing habits that drive our economy.

Hundreds of thousands of UK workers are likely to be affected directly. Finding themselves and their skills redundant will be both a shock to them and a shock to society. They will need support and retraining.

We must start to think now about their education and training needs ̶ just as much as young people.

Our thinking here in England should start with the best of what we already have – and that means further education.

We ignore FE at our peril

Hilary Steedman, one of the most informed international comparative researchers, constantly compared the German vocational education and training system with the system in England. By 2010, Steedman felt that the FE sector in England was both performing a vital function and providing a higher quality than continental counterparts.

Most recently, FE institutions have proven themselves to be inventive, adaptive and highly responsive during the pandemic, both for young people and adults.

My discussions with FE principals have highlighted the high load that came in September 2021 from students who had certificated in GCSE maths and English, but whose material performance was far lower than expected once on the course.

This required sensitive yet intensive action – just the kind of adaptive and supportive provision at which our FE service has excelled. That this did not result in a slew of press stories is testament to the dedication of staff and the application of the students.

It also reflects our lack of recognition of what the FE service does within the education system.

I have no doubt that FE will be more fundamental to our social and economic future than most realise.

The government rightly is considering all measures that can be adopted to “green” the school curriculum. But policy cannot stop at the school gate.

The development of apprenticeship provision in the past decade has been steady and effective. But we know from the continental experience that specific effort will be needed by both government and employers to sustain apprenticeship provision during this time of dramatic industrial and economic restructuring.

The skills bill currently going through parliament includes changes to FE governance, accountability, labour force, the renewal of estate and learner funding. These are welcome, since we know from the past that qualifications reform can be a necessary but not sufficient policy measure to support growth in vocationally focused provision.

We should also consider what more may be needed. This could include institutional development (buildings, staff and more), curriculum development (new programmes oriented to different groups and new industrial areas), and professional development (particularly in the new knowledge and skills required by industrial restructuring).

FE already provides a vital and highly effective bridge into work and into higher education that we should better recognise and celebrate.

Sound policy action can now support FE to become even more fundamental to our effort to shape a world-leading green economy and an equitable society. The government’s final climate change strategy is due very soon, in April.

It is my view that we ignore FE at our peril. A heroic shift in FE outcomes should be considered as worthy a target for political ambition, as improvements in school standards.

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