What can we learn from the history of policymaking in FE?

14 Jun 2022, 6:00

A top-down approach has left a confused legacy of abandoned institutions, qualifications and a lack of consistent funding streams, writes Bart Shaw

Bringing young people on the margins of education policy into the centre is what my organisation strongly believes is the most pressing policy change.

All policymaking should start with the question “how does this benefit the chances of those who do least well?”

This is where the hundreds of FE colleges in England come in.

They support almost a million young people at a time. These students are disproportionately those from lower-income or non-white backgrounds, and those with higher levels of learning needs.

Yet policy making (and research) marginalises young people in FE.

One way in which policymaking undermines and underfunds young people in FE is through high levels of ‘churn’ in funding and policy decisions.

This year I read the Edge Foundation’s excellent review of the last 30 years of FE policy, by Oxford University professor Ewart Keep, thinktank founder Tom Richmond and former college principal Ruth Silver. I highly recommend a read: it’s called ‘Honourable Histories’.

High levels of policy churn undermines FE

The overall message is clear: the FE sector in England has been characterised by frequent and significant changes in policy direction.

That’s especially the case in comparison to other countries, where the pace of change is more incremental.

England’s hyperactivity when it comes to FE policy has generally been problematic.

The report notes:

“Rather than seeking to establish and build up durable institutional arrangements we have a tendency to periodically raze them to the ground, scatter the rubble and start all over again with the erection of new, ultimately equally temporary edifices.”

In other countries, change is often built on consensus, with leaders of FE institutions, unions or representative groups, regional and local government and employers. But in England change is often centrally and swiftly imposed.

Coupled with frequent changes in direction, this top-down approach has left a confused legacy of abandoned institutions and qualifications and a lack of consistent funding streams.

Even when government rhetoric prioritises the FE sector, the relative funding, accountability structures, recruitment drives and celebration of achievement remains weighted heavily in favour of schools and the push for ever-improving academic attainment.

What, then, can current and future education ministers (for whom ‘skills’ is a stated top priority) learn from the failures of FE policymaking in the past?

I have three tentative suggestions. These are made in the spirit of slow policy change and not aiming to solve all problems in one go, but rather to lay a foundation for future reform.

1.Real terms funding to at least match 2010

Whilst the capital funding promised in the levelling up white paper is useful, the universal refrain from within the sector is about the continued shortfall in revenue funding. At the very least, real terms funding for colleges should match 2010, with longer (five year?) funding horizons to enable sustainable staffing and planning.

2. Put those with the highest need first

For the Department for Education, this means resourcing the FE sector to at least the same extent at schools. Funding, recruitment and strategic position within the department has been marginalised for too long.

Focus on young people whose learning needs are more complex and less likely to fit what is already happening. Forty-five per cent of young people aged 16 plus with an identified SEND are in FE colleges compared to 12 per cent in school sixth forms.

Ensure that every new decision is made with these young people in mind first.

3. Stick with the current portfolio of qualifications

Give T Levels a chance to bed in. In the meantime, rather than imagining that the system will need streamlining, and BTECs should make way for T Levels, allow both to sit alongside each other and spend time observing, measuring and testing solutions before radically re-landscaping.

Let’s not keep repeating the cycles of the past.

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One comment

  1. Mike Cooper


    Try counting up (much less naming, and remembering) all the politicians of any party who have been directly responsible — under whatever ministerial title — for FE and Skills [etc.!] over the past 30+ years… i.e., since just before Incorporation.

    With just a couple of pretty short-lived exceptions, they have been uncommitted place-holders with little genuine connection to or insight about FE, yet full of energy to fling out ideas, reforms and rhetorical fog in short-term pursuit of the next headline.

    And that’s in turn been done as a route to medium-term personal advancement (pretty invariably, well out of anything to do with education and skills, in any real sense).

    The continuous, unsettling, damaging and deleterious impact of this pattern and its personalities has been a major source of the problematic state of the sector.

    That underlies all the principles/solutions (and again, what they’re designed to address) which are outlined in this article.