The election will bring change – but will it bring respect?

Whoever wins the contest, the new administration and its Department for Education must get to know our sector and its learners better

Whoever wins the contest, the new administration and its Department for Education must get to know our sector and its learners better

10 Jun 2024, 5:00

In the midst of preparations for the first English exam on 22 May, my phone pinged with a message from a colleague: “general election July 4th then…”.

English and maths exams are the pinnacle of our year, but nothing quite trumps the excitement of an election, especially one that we expected to wait a bit longer for.

I don’t become nervous about change any longer. Having worked in further education for many years, I have seen the shifting sands and waves of new policy washing over the old (and often, not so old).

The prospect of change brings hope, but I wonder: are we ever going to escape the perpetual cycle of change, and is it conducive to creating a strong, stable offer for our students?

After 14 years with the Conservative party at the helm, we have seen and endured a lot. Under Gove, my own children have become expert fact-learners, primed for their future examinations. They know so much, and are prepared well to regurgitate on the day.

But what of the most disadvantaged young people, who we know are likely to come into further education looking for a new direction? And what of those young people who can’t quite ingest the fact-heavy curriculum they have been fed? What might a new government mean for them?

At present, when they come to our colleges, they sit through further years of preparing for high-stakes exams in English and maths, paired with a vocational course of choice.

They can climb the vocational ladder up to T Levels, and some do, but these qualifications are so challenging that without a stronger academic grounding, our students struggle. I have seen BTECs discontinued without an appropriate T-Level to replace them in time – and where BTECs have gone, many teachers have mourned the loss of a course that their students enjoyed.

These courses should have been reviewed and improved, not thrown away. This ruthless mentality which the sector has been subjected to does nothing to provide stability. These fraught changes mark the end of the line for some of our future tradespeople and aspiring vocational professionals as they have no path forward.

A new government needs to take pride in us

Whatever the new government looks like, it has to prioritise routes forward and out of deprivation for our disadvantaged young people.

During their 14-year tenure, the Conservatives have successfully reclassified the further education sector to align us with our primary and secondary counterparts and increased the funding we receive.

Yet we are far from thriving, and this has me questioning whether any of the policy changes have actually helped the most at-risk students. And do policy makers really understand who we are as a sector?

The changes to the Condition of Funding has had us all scrambling for English and maths teachers frantically, and wondering how to even begin timetabling for it.

Colleagues across the sector who have painstakingly timetabled resit classes within study programmes will have shared my despair as we read through the new weekly mandate of three hours in English and four of maths a week.

This was further confirmation that our current government doesn’t really ‘get us’ at all, when the nuts and bolts of our study programmes have now suddenly changed size and shape.

That feeling is particularly isolating when you pair it with our sectors understandable ‘poor relative’ complex.

A new administration (of whatever shade) needs to take the time to get to know us, because there is a lot more to post-16 education than A Levels. We are diverse, and we are wonderfully creative – we have had to be, to survive what has felt until only recently like ex-communication from the education sector.

A new government needs to take pride in us, and truly value what we do as a sector if we are to benefit from sustainable, meaningful change that truly improves life chances. They need to help us to reach our potential, so we can help our students reach theirs.

This election has roused me from my exam-haze. Change is coming one way or another, but it needs to be well-considered change that gives the sector a chance to have their say.

It’s time for stability. It’s time for a better deal for further education.

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