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A Decade of Missed Opportunities in Further Education

A Decade of Missed Opportunities in Further Education

The last ten years has seen a consolidation of a set of trends in our education system that connect marketization and social division. Looking back, the 1988 Education Reform Act and the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 laid the ground for a drive to strengthen centralised policy direction in primary, secondary and further education. The diminution of local authority influence in schools and colleges that these laws heralded has led to a much tighter centralised control of local curricula: the material we want young people and to learn and how we want them to learn it.  

What we have seen in schools is an intensification of ‘rigour’ to ‘raise standards’ in GCSEs through the shift from grades to numbers and a return to terminal examinations as the main form of assessment. This process was piloted by Michael Gove. In further education, colleges have been burdened with initiatives ostensibly designed to enhance students’ employability. They have had to find work placements for every 16-18 year old and enforce the mandatory retaking of GCSE Maths and English. In addition, a great tranche of further education funding has been channelled into apprenticeships as a rejuvenated vocational qualification.

What links these interventions is that they are driven by a professed desire to address employers’ concerns and, in the case of apprenticeship, they aim to ‘put employers in the driving seat’. Another, and more worrying feature they share is that they view young people who pursue further education in instrumentalist terms; in other words, they risk objectifying young people as abstract human capital that must be harnessed to meet the ‘skills’ needs of employers.

The GCSE initiative originates in the Wolf Report of 2011 which found that employers valued GCSE Maths and English above any low level vocational qualification while recognising that:

the funding and accountability systems established by government create perverse incentives to steer 16+ students into inferior alternative qualifications.

Government intervention brought no real change to the ‘funding and accountability systems’ that marketization put in place. Instead, in 2015 Matt Hancock’s blanket imposition of GCSEs simply added to them: college teachers had to deliver the retakes (with an expectation of high achievement rates) in 8 months. Furthermore, colleges faced funding penalties if students did not attend these classes.

The drive to increase apprenticeships has also been fraught with difficulties: the government insistence on apprenticeships as the vocational qualification of choice appears to have marginalised colleges while still burdening them with byzantine accountability processes. The determination to put employers first, appears to have foundered as recruitment numbers particularly of 16-18 year olds has fallen away.

In the last ten years, the marketised environment has become more competitive for colleges. The Area Reviews, merging colleges on the grounds of supposed ‘efficiencies of scale’ were a milestone intervention. The centralised control (through funding levers) at the heart of this market model has seriously impaired colleges’ ability to address local needs.  A key failing of the market model is that it fails to acknowledge and support the principle that further education is a collective endeavour. Instead it serves to strengthen social divisions and to turn schools and colleges into institutions that categorise and class young people

Sitting at the heart of this market model is a ‘kick and run’ policy process. There is an uncanny resemblance to park football in the way it works. Every year, sometimes mid-year, the government kicks the funding ball. What follows is a scramble as all the colleges converge on that spot.

It’s no way to run further education. We need to re-localise the focus of further education and put behind us the historically erratic and damaging model of funding that has constrained colleges in their planning and the social benefits they are best placed to provide.

  • Rob Smith is Reader in Education at Birmingham City University and Director of the Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education. His body of work explores the impact of funding and marketisation on FE provision. He has researched and written extensively in collaboration with FE and HE practitioners.
  • Vicky Duckworth is a Reader in Education at Edge Hill University. She has developed considerable expertise in Adult Literacy and Education. With Rob Smith she leads the Transforming Lives research project which celebrates the transformational power of further education. She is also a member of Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission.