New Head of UKCES wrongly accuses colleges of something to hide

Accusing colleges of withholding customer information because they have something to hide, as the new Head of the UK Commission on Employment and Skills does in the TES (19th August – click here), may make for a good headline in the silly season but hardly makes a useful contribution to the debate on accountability.  Michael Davis would have been better advised to follow the recommendations published by his own organisation last year (click here) suggesting that the issues involved in improving information for customers ‘must be addressed with a positive, problem solving attitude rather than as a ‘stick to beat’ the sector’   The reality is that while providing information that helps students make well informed choices is important and something that colleges take very seriously it is also much more difficult than the armchair generals queuing up to advise FE might think.

To begin with customers of the FE sector are not short of data.  Colleges publish success rates for long and short courses annually which, along with observational data also find their way into published inspection grades.  Colleges carry out student satisfaction surveys and regularly receive ratings that many other public and private organisations would die for.  It is not true to suggest that Leicester College is the only one that makes use of more detailed data on student destinations (though it may well be the only one that uses Mr Davis’s pet scheme) and the proportions progressing into further education or employment is an integral part of the information published by every college under ‘Framework for Excellence’.   A helpful further step would be for the YPLA to analyse and publish this destination data for major types of course or by categories of student rather than simply using it as one means of grading colleges.

may make for a good headline in the silly season but hardly makes a useful contribution to the debate on accountability.”

It is good that in moving to a genuinely ‘demand led’ system of further education the government intends to give greater priority to information that serves the needs of customers.  There is no shortage of well meaning advice on how this might be done – ‘food labelling approaches’ ‘traffic lights’ or ‘scorecards’ are regularly proposed by bodies like UKCES in broad brush terms conveniently leaving the awkward detail to others.  Some suggestions are ludicrously impractical such as the Commission’s own suggestion that colleges publish the increase in wages paid to successful graduates of individual courses.  Others are possible but miss the point.  A potential student is not so much interested in average pass rates or employment rates for a programme as in the prospects for someone like me.

What most students need is not more tables of data but skilled and impartial guidance that helps them assess options in the light of their own context, ambitions and attitudes to risk.  Instead of cheap jibes at colleges UKCES would serve the country better if it challenged the serious cuts currently being made to the Careers Service that make the chances of such guidance increasingly remote.

Mick Fletcher is the Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Education

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  1. Shane Chowen

    When I was at NUS we did a lot of work with BIS on getting the public face of framework for excellence right for current and future students, particularly over the learner views survey element.
    All of this is now public (http://ffepublication.skillsfundingagency.bis.gov.uk/). It’s good to know that all that work got noticed!! And I also know that Leicester were heavily involved in the pilot for this which is probably why he believes his old college are the only one to take ‘action’.

    If Mr Davies is keen to throw accusations of hiding data around, he’d do well to criticise one of the very first moves taken by Schools Minister Nick Gibb just after the general election when he EXCEMPTED Sixth Form Colleges from the Learner Views Survey all together.
    We need to robust and consistent approach tonpre-course data. Something I know NIACE have done some research into – the last thing we want is for Colleges to be made to feel, as Sixth Form Colleges Forum clearly did, that they can manage this by themselves without a system.

  2. The major problem with all of these scoring systems for FE is that I’ve seen no evidence so far that any of them would apply to one of our main competitors, School Sixth Forms.

    If Mr Davis wants to look for hidden evidence, he might be better off looking at an area where 20% of A-level starters have “not known” outcomes…

  3. Kayte O'Neill

    As a parent, you only need to look at the reams of local College brochures that have come through our door over the summer, and see that there is no information on which of the courses are best for employment prospects. I’m not going to trawl through all the links you make above it should be in the brochures.