Maybe this will be the government that delivers for further education

The further education sector has heard much of what the Secretary of State has to say before. But cynical responses don't meet the increasingly urgent need for reform, says Julian Gravatt.

Gavin Williamson’s speech last Thursday on further education confirmed what he said in Parliament shortly before Covid shut everything down. It is also what government advisors and officials have been saying for six months.

His priority as Education Secretary is further education. The plan will involve a white paper. That it’s part of a bigger picture of levelling up opportunities for forgotten people and left behind places. That the aim will be to catch up with other countries who have better systems and higher productivity.

So far, so familiar. As he said himself, some of us will feel we’ve heard it all before. And he’s right. Back in my locked down office cupboard, I have copies of many reports published each summer and promising reform – from the two volume FE/HE white paper of 1991 to the Productivity Plan of 2015, which confirmed plans for the TEF and the apprenticeship levy, among other things.

There are many more, probably 48 efforts to get things right. So it’s easy to be cynical about another promise. But my experience is that negativity is bad for health and is often a cover for defensiveness. So, here’s another take.

Augar remains

A decent starting point to discuss a government’s reform is the post-18 review. It’s the only government report in my thirty-year career that had the full written support of every college principal in England (in a letter that received little media coverage).

They did this not because they agreed with every word but because they believed it deserved a hearing and they’d seen #HEtwitter dismiss the report. The report was launched by a Prime Minister whose power had already drained away but despite a tight, fiscally neutral remit set out a sensible direction of travel.

My favourite line comes early on – “Post 18 education cannot be left entirely to market forces” – a useful corrective to the much more lightweight Browne review of 2009 – but much of the good stuff is in the details.

The panel proposed better support for student living costs, the development of higher technical education and a shift in student loans towards a lifetime account. They criticised the neglect of adult skills and set out some ways to turn things around. The report came out, got lost and, a year on, much has changed. But the issues the review raised are still there. And several of the authors – Alison Wolf, Philip Augar – are around to take them forward.

Building back

The scale of what has happened in the last hundred days adds to the case for change. The UK is on the cliff edge of an economic crisis which follows on from a world health crisis. The government has borrowed record amounts of money but despite all the job retention scheme bonuses, green home grants and ten-pound vouchers, unemployment could be at 1982 levels, or three million, by Christmas.

Normal education life ground to a halt just before Easter and, while there have been heroic efforts to carry on, inequalities have widened. Millions of education days have been lost. In an environment where many are scared and many more may be scarred, it seems a bit petty to replay old battles or to dismiss new initiatives. I think the priority is how we dig ourselves out of this mess and what should be prioritised.

Wider events will shape the reforms. Gavin Williamson didn’t confine himself to post-18 education but discussed the whole of further education. He talked about reforming qualifications – probably including higher technical ones – but also making institutions stronger.

He explained that colleges spoke about the vital role of colleges as anchor institutions. He expressed a desire for a stronger, more coherent education and skills system that works for everyone. He said we should move on from the 50 per cent HE participation target – and generated headlines by doing so – though he didn’t suggest a new one.

Targets focus minds

Targets went out of fashion in UK government policy a while back but they keep reappearing and they do provide a focus. The fact that England has now joined Scotland – which achieved 50 per cent young HE participation in 2006 – is a good thing. Though, as the Labour government said in its Higher Ambitions report back in 2009, perhaps there needed to be better alternatives to the full-time three-year degree.

There were also other better targets. I liked the ones in the 2006 Leitch review that focused on 2020 and that covered the whole population. Leitch proposed targets of 40 per cent, 68 per cent and 85 per cent for levels four, three and two respectively. By my reckoning, the UK will beat the level four target by one per cent thanks to the rising numbers of young people in universities but will miss the level two and three targets by 5-10 per cent each. A couple of million people adrift as a result of collective under-investment. There was folly in piling up qualifications regardless of sector or value but they’re a temperature check.

It is the plan behind the targets that will really matter. FE reform in a country in trouble led by a government in a hurry is bound to include some missteps but some changes are necessary. There’s a pressing need to improve the supply of people into sectors like health, construction and anything digital. A Plan for Skills will need to build on this week’s Plan for Jobs. There are funding and responsibility issues to be tackled. And, in the wreckage of dreams created by the pandemic, there’s the need for a more collaborative approach to our education system.

It may be the 48th time the UK government is tackling this area and I understand the cynicism but sometimes the best thing to do is to go for the same old target but do it better. After all it was on their 48th attempt at the top, that Leicester FC finally secured the title.

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