Hey Rishi! FE needs more than golden oldies and remixes

FE is doomed if elite colleges and a Brit Bacc are the best the new prime minister has to offer, writes Ian Pryce

FE is doomed if elite colleges and a Brit Bacc are the best the new prime minister has to offer, writes Ian Pryce

5 Nov 2022, 5:00

With real-terms college funding rates back to 2004 levels and more pain ahead, the Department for Education seems otherwise obsessed with the shiny and new – a magpie mentality coupled with a goldfish memory.

And so Rishi Sunak’s first press release on education focused on new “elite technical institutes” and a British Baccalaureate as the keys to future success. His diagnosis is spot on; we need to improve technical and vocational education and broaden the academic post-16 curriculum (including longer study of maths and English). However, his prescription misfires as badly as Timo Werner did for my beloved Chelsea last season.

Elite-ness cannot be mandated. It comes from the bottom up over a long period and survives cyclical changes in performance. Crucially, it requires sustained and usually high investment. It is no coincidence that our most elite institutions are all well funded. Would Eton produce so many prime ministers if spending was restricted to £5,000 for each pupil?

Elite institutions are also usually small. Oxford and Cambridge are not large universities; Eton is small; Michaela is small. We know we need good technical and vocationally educated people. But we also know FE students do not travel. A small network of new elite institutes will not deliver what we need. If anything, it will make matters worse by sucking away staff from existing colleges to work in a less productive way.

And elite institutions don’t scale. How can we propose another iteration of national colleges, institutes of technology, career colleges, UTCs and studio schools –  all of which have either failed outright or failed to bring about systemic change?

A Voxbridge for advanced sparkies or chippies is a laughable non-starter

We already have a network of 228 colleges. They have satisfaction ratings as high as the NHS. They are the most popular choice for post-16 study, enrolling more young people than does the very long tail of 3,000 or so school sixth forms.

Colleges have also proved effective at delivery. The two most transformative post-16 achievements of the past 20 years have been a massive shift in educational participation and an equally massive shift in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds studying maths and English.

These both resulted from bold decisions in 2014, but they happened only because colleges expanded and developed an army of new maths and English teachers from scratch. We are the only real mass-education resource that can deliver quickly at scale.

The prescription we need is simple, if boring: Invest in existing colleges.

Likewise, betting on yet another new academic product – a British Baccalaureate – sounds risky.  A-levels have 70 years of history and recognition. It is government policy that is largely responsible for their lack of breadth. Students now study three A-levels rather than start four subjects as they did with AS-levels. And the maths and English condition is not universal, so the most academic is the only group that doesn’t continue studying these subjects. 

Sunak is profoundly committed to his father-in-law’s mantra: “in God we trust, everyone else bring data”. The data says that real people want to do their technical and vocational education at their local, properly funded college. Real people wanting an academic education vote overwhelmingly for A-levels. 

The lesson of education history is that people get what they want and shun what they don’t. The country doesn’t need a small force of elite electricians but a battalion of good ones. A Voxbridge for advanced sparkies or chippies is a laughable non-starter.

Most importantly, we need our ministers to see FE (and colleges in particular) as a system. At present, our funding arrangements are not holistic and ignore institutions. The Ney Review and David Russell’s work at Oxford’s Said Business School provide a glimpse of how FE could work.  Building on this would be helpful.

I count Joni Mitchell as an elite artist. With a looming financial crisis for our sector, we need a change of prescription. Otherwise, her lament that “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone” could become our epitaph.

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