Wolf Report three years on: Legacy of reform could be “disaster for the country”

As part of a series of articles in the wake of the third anniversary of the Wolf Report, David Igoe argues that the legacy of the reform might not be what Michael Gove was hoping for.

It’s hard to know whether Alison Wolf realised she was setting out a reform agenda which would have repercussions across the whole of public secondary and tertiary education provision when she accepted the commission and then published her report on vocational education.  In its context it was/is a good report and provided a timely set of recommendations to remove the ‘churn’ of needless low level qualifications with poor employment opportunity and the pursuit of funding imperatives not always in students’ best interests.

But the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm for Wolf seems to have no boundaries. It certainly hasn’t been confined to the Vocational domain and Wolf can be detected as the basis of Michael Gove’s huge and far reaching funding and curriculum reform currently being rolled out across the secondary and 16 to 18 sectors.

Is this a good thing? I suspect even Alison Wolf may think not. A recommendation to put funding on a per capita basis is a worthy idea in principle but as sixth form colleges have discovered provides a convenient excuse to reduce core 16 to 18 funding to levels where a broad and balanced curriculum programme cannot be afforded or sustained.

Only schools, it seems who benefit from the funding guarantee and premium uplifts can afford to run a sixth form and nearly 200 have taken the opportunity to set up their own new small, very expensive provision all in the name of parent choice and diversity – another Wolf-Gove clarion call.

There was a lot of sense talked in the Wolf Report about ensuring qualifications lead to meaningful progression, but again I doubt that Alison Wolf really approves of the drive to push a narrow academic vision of what’s valuable in education whether at GCSE (The E-Bacc) or at A level (facilitating subjects).

Much low-value vocational provision has been removed by the reforms but, given the vocational basis of the commission, there is precious little clarity about what will replace the ‘churn’ and give meaningful and relevant programmes to the 50 per cent plus of the cohort who are really not suited to an academic and linear diet.

One would have thought that the gold in Alison Wolf’s reforms is the insistence of English and maths at at least GCSE grade C. Of course this is not a new idea and most sixth form colleges have insisted that students follow a programme which includes GCSE in maths and English if the magic ‘C’ is wanting.

Now that this is a condition of funding will certainly focus the mind but is it the way to go?  Most of our members will have little difficulty acquiescing to the requirement but there remain two enormous barriers across FE generally. The first is the lack of suitably qualified and experienced maths and English teachers and the second is the dearth of effective ‘stepping stone’ qualifications which will support a student’s journey to improvement and progression.

Having a big stick without parallel investment in teachers and new programmes really smacks of a Dickensian thrashing being used as a substitute for proper care and attention.

Overall I think it would be difficult to overestimate the impact of the Wolf recommendations on the Department for Education. They dominate the policy landscape in a way that may be unparalleled.

Whether the legacy of the present administration will be the resounding success story often trumpeted by the right leaning press and Mr Gove will take his place in history as a leading architect of reform is far too early to judge.  If history approves then Michael will have a lot to thank Alison Wolf for. Alternatively we may be seeing a reform agenda that, as far as the 16 to 19 phase goes, precipitates a disaster for the country as we witness the unravelling of high quality, highly efficient provision (aka sixth form colleges) being sacrificed on the altar of fiscal rectitude.

David Igoe is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

Click here to read the in-depth analysis and a government response

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