The government’s FE policy is dangerously wishful thinking

16 Oct 2021, 6:00

Government rhetoric not rooted in reality will cause colleges to choose the easy options, writes Ian Pryce

As a fan of country music, the untimely death of Nashville-based singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith gave me an excuse to play all her old albums. She never achieved great fame because she championed traditional American folk music, rather than court a wider audience.  

I wish government could show a similar appreciation for, and pride in, the long and quiet tradition of further education.

To quote from my favourite Nanci song, “If wishes were changes we’d all live in roses”. This wonderful line points out the harsh truth that you cannot wish away reality. 

Much current FE policy-making at the moment seems rooted in wish rather than reality. And if colleges believe they are being set up to fail, it is inevitable they will retreat and hunker down, rather than take risky bets.

It seems pretty clear that government wants fewer people going to university full-time and many more taking sub-degree higher education or degree apprenticeships.  

It seems equally clear government wants young people to stop doing applied general courses and do T Levels instead. 

The former education secretary also said “the future is further education”. This rhetoric seems to wish more young people would choose technical and vocational courses over A-level equivalents. Carpenters not classicists, as Mary Beard might say.

Unfortunately, this bumps up against awkward reality. Numbers taking traditional degrees are at record levels. Colleges are struggling to maintain even their relatively tiny higher education enrolments. 

Covid has battered apprenticeships and, based on 2020 starts, the average apprentice is now a thirtysomething advanced business administrator. Last year fewer than ten per cent of starts were young people aged under 19.

Meanwhile, teacher-assessed GCSEs have resulted in more students taking A-levels, a trend that Ofqual is not planning to reverse quickly. 

At the same time, whether down to Brexit or Covid, pay rates in jobs with relatively low qualification thresholds in areas such as retail and hospitality are shooting up. It makes these jobs, rather than apprenticeships and VTQs, attractive as a choice for those aged 16 to 18. 

To top it off, the “fingers in ears” assault on BTECs only adds to the risk. A switch to T Levels involves sourcing a 500 per cent increase in work experience hours.

Meanwhile at policy level, the Skills for Jobs white paper makes clear a college’s offer will be heavily determined by bodies with no skin in the game. There is no evidence that skills panels will share, let alone fully underwrite, the risk of colleges doing the panels’ bidding and finding no demand.

In such circumstances, and faced with more years of low funding, surely the logical behaviour is for a college to shrink to a stable set of popular bestsellers. In other words, to enrol low-maintenance students and show good financial margins.  

If a college wants to take risks, then logic would dictate looking to expand academic provision for those with good GCSE grades, rather than moving too fast towards qualifications like T Levels (which depend on third-party employers and are little understood by parents).

In The Crisis of the Meritocracy Cambridge University academic Peter Mandler shows that democracy and social change trumps political ideology. His study of the success of the comprehensive system shows that, in education, the government follows, rather than leads, the public.

So the British education system is built on what parents want – not politicians, not employers.

We’ll find student numbers falling and finances crumbling

The fact that 70 per cent of young people change institution at 16, most don’t study A-levels, and more post-16 young people are in college than schools, shows that colleges have been right to focus on serving their public, sometimes for over a century. 

If we start to move away from what the public wants, we’ll find student numbers falling and our finances crumbling further. 

So the danger of wishful thinking is that we end up with fewer students. As well as Nanci, we’ll all be channelling Pink Floyd’s “Wish you were here”.

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One comment

  1. Jeremy Wilsdon

    A really helpful summary of a very sorry state of affairs. Having recently moved from FE to the schools sector I am seeing first hand how much more responsive government seems to schools. So much of the great innovation in FE seems to flow in spite of government policy not because of it. Policy makers need to better model the kind of skills they keep asking the FE sector to deliver.