FE and schools rubbed shoulders at this year’s festivals of education and skills – wouldn’t it be interesting to get them talking more, asks Graham Taylor

It was great to see education and skills – schools and FE – combined in one festival this year, at the splendid location of Wellington College. The Festival of Skills ran alongside the Festival of Education, separated by nothing more than some hay bales and an iced coffee stand. Pimm’s on the lawn, anyone?!

It was great to meet primary, secondary and FE teachers to share thoughts, and there were many ideas, themes and challenges in common that would merit further integration at next year’s festival. I will explore some ideas below, but first, some of the highlights from this year.

Comedian Hugh Dennis, who opened the festival to an overflowing tent, was a knockout. His parents were teachers and his work on TV show ‘Outnumbered’ and some canny research threw up some great education and political gags. And like all the best jokes, there were truths that lay beneath. Indeed, three of them even turned up on ‘Mock the Week’ that evening!

Like all the best jokes, there were truths that lay beneath

Sadly I missed the Amanda Spielman interview and the fiery panel on student behaviour that both caused such a fuss. I used to make both days when it ran on Saturdays and Sundays – it was the best value CPD I’ve come across – but some of us have other things to do on weekends.

On the skills side, while there was lots of stuff on apprenticeships, I was still left with more questions than answers, as the system remains in a state of undress. May 2017 starts are “way down” – not a surprise when many levy payers aren’t ready for them and haven’t even tendered for the work.

As for the non-levy-paying market, the very late abandonment of the register of apprenticeship training providers process and the tiny funding allocations seem to have left the sector dazed and confused.

And there’s still uncertainly over standards and end-point assessments in some areas. Because of this, apprenticeships remain a difficult sell, despite the (almost) 100 per cent subsidy compared with 50 per cent for most other adult qualifications, or the loan option for level three and above.

These qualifications could well be crowded out if employers and learners go down the free apprenticeship route and levy-paying employers relabel their existing training to claw back some of the tax. I’m not sure how it adds to productivity – and I don’t think much of the sector is either.

In short, while much is specific to the FE sector, the prospect of more dialogue with schools is definitely an attractive one. So what might that look like?

Themes that spring to mind include panel debates on the challenges of providing useful careers advice, or whether schools fail adequately to inform pupils about FE pathways. This would be a fiery one, especially for those schools with their own sixth forms that won’t let us in to speak to their students about post-16 progression.

I’m sure there are other themes on which FE folk would love to work with schools and vice versa. How about panels where schools could grill FE people about the best vocational options for different types of pupil, sessions on how levy-paying MATs and LAs can deliver high-quality apprenticeships, cooperation on GCSEs – especially English and Maths and how we can help each other to improve outcomes?

And there’s so much to share that is relevant across the years and settings, on curriculum development, transition, motivating learners, behavioural strategies, or nudge techniques.

And finally: Mother Theresa’s hung parliament. Grammar schools are now off the agenda. Is there a better chance of maintaining learner funds? Will schools get their usual preferential treatment? Note the funding reductions for schools proposed in the Tory manifesto – seven per cent real-terms cuts over five years – were tiny compared to how FE has been decimated.

So at next year’s Festival, as Mrs Merton would say: Let’s have a heated debate and get schools and colleges working together. We have much to learn from each other.


Graham Taylor is principal and chief executive of New College Swindon

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