If you had a five-minute slot on the political party conference circuit, what would you change in further education? And would you need a glitter bomb or just some sparkle to get the message across? For while the parties of all stripes sell new wheezes, funding pots and ‘Advanced BS’, back at the digital chalk-face the issues looming large tend not to be quite as catchy: cash investment in student opportunity.
Of course, the three political parties no doubt recognise this. But the means of driving this investment, whether it’s the Lib Dems extending the current English and maths tuition funding stream or Labour announcing a new Technical Excellence College standard (remarkably similar to the current Institutes of Technology), feel like technocratic tweaks. They create either a new audit demand or a regional bidding war for the latest kitemark.
In reality, whenever there’s a new pot of cash to draw down, there’s funding returned and opportunity lost when it could be merged with current rules instead. And in the meantime, a huge amount of energy is spent proving, auditing and recording its use.
Back in the classroom, our reality is students choosing between immediate cash for whatever work is around or the possible investment that education represents. Given that we know economic security correlates with educational outcomes, attendance and enrolment, a return of the mid-2000s education maintenance allowance would more directly tilt those choices towards the aims of all parties: more students doing better at 16-18.
Labour haven’t promised that yet, but a recognition of the economic constraints students face remains a thread in their thinking as they “work to ensure the cost-of-living crisis does not hold back students’ learning”. The Lib Dem mythical government, but realistic coalition or voting partner, would also boost funding for FE. The Conservatives target increased funding on teacher bonuses and a lift to English and maths funding. It seems we have their attention.
For adult students, negotiating their enrolment with the benefits and loans system is an achievement in itself. If you are on Access to HE, then you qualify for an advanced learner loan for your fees (which is written off when you finish uni) but not a maintenance loan, and your study hours will be similar to some universities.
However, you probably won’t qualify for a council tax discount, and your universal credit will be affected. In the meantime, you have the likely hurdles of childcare, funding rules and a reduced income as well as the small matter of learning and following your ambitions. Most Access students study healthcare-related courses and are the NHS of the future. I hear there’s a recruitment crisis.
But perhaps the most curious announcement is the Conservatives promising to end a reform they have barely birthed. PM Sunak proclaimed a new Advanced British Standard, merging A Levels and the nascent T Levels with a side of English and maths for a post-16 qualification of the future.
While they may wrap this reform with the Union flag, its origins feel particularly European, following elements of the French system, only with fewer hours dedicated to it. But with the plan announced alongside a ten-year timescale, just as this government looks like it will exit stage right by January 2025 at the very latest, the timing is more positioning than policy.
Much like HS2, this is a reform destined to have its ambition stopped short. There’s also the small matter that it’s the minority of students at post-16 that study either A or T Levels, despite their focus in the national conscience.
That Sunak and Starmer have gone head-to-head on education policy is no surprise; that FE and skills has been the battleground is more so. Those of us in the FE classroom are probably tired of ‘Cinderella sector’ references and all it implies.
Rather than wait for glass slippers, it’s time to lobby and invite MPs into our colleges while we have their attention – not for ribbon cutting, but reality checking.