‘Politically driven’ post-16 policy churn has damaged stability, think tank warns

Leaders urged to address ‘short attention spans’ to create more stable political consensus and improve post-16 inequalities and data collection

Leaders urged to address ‘short attention spans’ to create more stable political consensus and improve post-16 inequalities and data collection

Governments must end the “high level” of policy churn across all four UK nations that has caused instabilities and overly complex training routes, a think tank has said.

A report, published today, has exposed stark inequalities in post-16 education outcomes for students across the UK and has put part of the blame to “political and ideologically driven” policy changes.

Researchers examined each UK jurisdiction’s efforts over the last two decades to overhaul its post-16 education and training system, which sought to engage with economic challenges, changing skills needs, and social necessities.

The research, conducted by Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Oxford University Centre for skills, knowledge and organisational performance (SKOPE), found 30 legal changes have been imposed since devolution in 1999 – comprising six education acts, nine reviews, four White Papers, three green papers, and eight government strategy papers.

The report said that such policy churn, which was rolled out for as “change for its own sake”, as well as budgetary pressures and “low-cost” education policies has resulted in instability, complex pathways, complicated regulatory mechanisms, and confusing understandings of post-16 education in the four nations.

“The system is at best flawed and at worst failing.”

This has led to poor outcomes in the four nations, notably in England and Wales.

Fewer apprenticeships are taken by young people in England and Wales (20 per cent) than in Scotland and Northern Ireland (37 per cent and 52 per cent), the report found.

Additionally, Wales was found to have the highest share of 16 to 18-year-olds classed as Not in Education, Employment or Training’ (NEET). Nearly 11 per cent of young people in Wales were classified as NEET in 2022-23, compared with 8 per cent in England, 9 per cent in Scotland and 5 per cent in Northern Ireland.

“No easy solution has been found to match the skills demand and the skills offer,” the report said.

The report slammed the “constant state of flux” of post-16 education policy in the UK from governing parties, mostly caused by “short attention spans”, and said it was exacerbating problems rather than solving them.

“The level of policy churn experienced within UK education and training (E&T) is enormous and potentially damaging for all the individuals and institutions involved. Constant policy churn emphasises the view that the E&T system is at best flawed and at worst failing,” the report said.

The relationship between further and higher education and bringing FE to the same level of prestige has been marred by the policy churn, researchers argue.

“It is arguable that the levels of policy churn experienced over the last three decades have had a detrimental impact on that process,” they said.

The “frequent tinkering” has also hindered the offering of vocational qualifications and has also caused a lack of comparable data between the four nations.

“Data can sometimes be organised around the latest focus of policy, which, as we know, can frequently change,” it said.

“We weren’t able to look at socio-economic differences in 16 to 18 participation at all across the four nations. Comparisons were slightly better for apprenticeships, but these could also be improved too.

“In principle, the four nations could be used for policy learning across the UK. In reality, a lack of comparable data severely limits these opportunities.”

The report called for a “new vision and policy approach for post-16 E&T”, which will require “political consensus within each nation on goals and ambitions that can be realised, well-funded institutions and structures, and a stable set of qualifications”.

And following that, a period of “policy stability should be overtly enshrined in both the governments’ and opposition parties’ post-16 E&T priorities to allow the sector to recover”.

The report admitted this plan “may sound fanciful” within the UK’s adversarial political system, but the main political parties are “not actually that far apart on their aims and policies for post-16 education and training”.

Luke Sibieta, research fellow at the EPI, said: “Our report exposes worrying inequalities in outcomes for students, as well as significant variation in the approaches taken to the provision of post-16 education and training across the four UK nations.”

James Robson, director of SKOPE, added: “This interim report highlights the important ways in which education and training policy approaches are converging and diverging across the four nations and how these shifting policy logics shape learner experiences and outcomes. It shows excessive levels of policy churn across all the UK nations which has had a damaging impact on the stability of the education and training sector.

“Our analysis highlights a need for more cross-party policy work that unpacks the challenges of different approaches to coordinating education and training, both market and systems-based thinking, and deals proactively with growing inequalities in the UK.”

A full report will follow this interim report later this year.

David Hughes, chief executive of Association of Colleges, said: “The report confirms that the very high level of policy churn has been detrimental to post-16 education and training despite the broad consensus across the political parties of the need for a more coherent, effective post-16 system.

“We have seen some of this just last week in England, with another change in policy around English and maths funding rules, which is unfair to learners, unfeasible for colleges and implemented without discussion.

“Whilst stability might be too much to ask for after the general election, we would be hoping for strong engagement between politicians, policy makers and the college staff who will have to implement any changes being proposed.”

The Department for Education declined to comment.

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