The 15 questions the FE White Paper must answer

The government must place excellence in teaching and learning at the heart of the FE White Paper, says ETF's David Russell

David Russell

FE white paper: 15 questions it must answer

We know that there will be a FE White Paper soon. The last White Paper (in a purist sense) was in 2011, called New Challenges, New Chances and is probably best remembered for introducing FE learner loans and introducing new freedoms and flexibilities on college governance, for example on borrowing and investment. 

The government will use the 2020-21 White Paper to signal what the coming spending review would like to achieve in the area of further and technical education. It is the government’s chance to give big, bold answers in an area of public policy that is politically important to it. The very presence of a White Paper matters a lot, as it shows that FE has made it into the category of “politically important”. Some in the sector may dread this – we know policy churn and permanent revolution has been a curse in England in FE. But, in politics, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Getting the questions right

So, every White Paper is a set of fairly definite answers from the government. The key to writing a great White Paper is getting the questions right. What will be the questions at the heart of this White Paper?

Prior to Covid-19, the front-runner question was probably: how do we create an FE system that is high quality and financially sustainable? But other contenders included: how do we make the FE system more responsive to employers’ needs? How do we turn colleges into high-value public assets at the heart of their communities? And how do we boost higher technical education so that it drives our industrial strategy?

But in the new post-Covid world, a new set of questions become contenders. How do we put FE at the heart of a national recovery plan? How do we transform further and technical education so that it meets the needs of a disrupted and stressed social and economic landscape?

None of these is the right question for the White Paper to be answering. The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) might be expected to want professional development to be at the heart of the thinking, as that’s our core business. But professional development is only ever a support act – it will never be the main event. 

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More: FE White Paper could be revolutionary, says Williamson

Background: FE White Paper to offer 'vision' for sector

The whole point of an education and training system is to teach and train. In the end, only two things matter fundamentally: what is learnt (curriculum), and how well it is learnt (standards). There are other things policy makers have to think about (like how much it costs), but curriculum and standards are the core. 

There are different approaches available in education policy to decide what gets taught and learnt. You can have a national curriculum, you can be led by learners’ choices, you can be led by employers’ real-time demands, you can try to predict future national, regional or local need. 

In FE and training in England there is generally a settled consensus that the right approach to curriculum is to try to strike a balance between learner demand and employer demand. The main mechanism for creating the detail of curricula is to reverse-engineer it through putting effort into getting qualifications right. Government White Papers typically spend a lot of political energy on the question of the right structures and processes for ascertaining, influencing and meeting employer (and learner) demand. A lot of the effort is poured into the areas of qualification reform, funding policy and accountability frameworks.

There are also different approaches available to secure how well things are taught. Broadly, the two camps are regulation and control versus deregulation and autonomy. On this, there is far less consensus in FE in England. We are currently in a phase of deregulation and autonomy, and if there is any movement on this dimension, the most likely move is a pendulum swing back part-way towards regulation or quasi-regulation (specific guidance and expectations on teacher qualifications, perhaps supported by the ETF as the guardians of FE’s professional standards).

But the really big challenge for policy makers is to break out of these paradigms and familiar ways of thinking. Whitehall thinks about regulation, funding and structures because these are things they know about. These are things they can act on.  

This approach is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The authors of the White Paper should not start with the question “what should we do to make the FE system more [responsive to employers/sustainable/resilient/efficient/well-respected/responsive to political fiat]” – insert your policy priority du jour.  

Excellence in teaching and learning 

Instead, they should go right back to the purpose of having colleges and other education and training bodies at all. That purpose is – and this may come as a shocking revelation – to educate and to train. They should ask what excellence looks like in places that educate and train, and what are the characteristics of a system that supports such excellence.

In other words, the key question for the White Paper should be: what would it take to create an FE system that has excellence in teaching and learning at its heart?

Now, it is true that teaching and learning are a means, not an end. But the ends – or the purpose or mission – of the FE system have been haggled over ad nauseam. Some say it’s economic growth, some say employability, some social mobility, some community cohesion, some civic health. Some have said it’s more than one or all of these things, and the balance is what matters. 

There is a new imperative in 2020 and beyond, and it is to pivot the FE system to support the growth of a green economy and sustainable society; but focusing on aims will do nothing in itself to lift quality. In truth we will never improve the quality of the system by constantly re-treading the relative importance of these various missions.  Sometimes to better achieve the end goal we need to focus precisely on the means, not the end; and for the purposes of a White Paper, it really does not matter much, as all of these goals are achieved more successfully if the teaching and learning are fantastic, evidence-based and transformational.

Putting effectiveness of teaching and the process of learning at the heart of government’s thinking would give a clear magnifying lens for examining what matters.  

A White Paper author who was focused on teaching and learning would at this stage be asking these questions:

  • What are the principles of effective pedagogy that everyone teaching and managing in our FE system needs to be conversant with, and how do we keep them updated and equip everyone with the skills to engage with them critically and reflectively?
  • How do we attract experience and talent into the FE system to teach?
  • How do we retain talent and experience in the FE workforce?
  • How do we ensure that the widest possible range of learners is able to maximally engage in the transformational effect of learning in FE?
  • How do we empower leaders of learning to spend their time attending to quality of teaching and learning within their institutions and not the myriad other things the system currently demands of them?
  • How do we develop our system leaders so that they can prioritise the quality of teaching and learning locally, regionally and nationally?
  • How do we identify and learn from successful innovation across the nation and internationally?
  • How do we train our new professionals and para-professionals so that they have a deep foundational understanding of pedagogy that they can build upon throughout their careers?
  • How do we become systematically excellent in digital pedagogy?
  • How do we build clear career pathways that professionals can pursue to excel in their chosen areas of specialism?
  • How do we facilitate professional exchange to support, stretch and challenge practitioners?
  • How do we ensure that professional standards are embedded in the system and everyone strives to be excellent against them?
  • How do we support sector leaders in recognising, supporting and rewarding excellence in teaching and learning?
  • How do we ensure that educators are able to stay up to date with their knowledge of and engagement in the industries or fields they are teaching in?
  • How do we create a national network of subject-specific expertise in technical teaching so that everyone in the FE system has a place they can access to stretch and challenge them in their professional practice?

By the time of publication, the authors would have consulted widely enough with the right people to have come up with some brilliant, deliverable answers to these questions. And that would be a revolution every teacher, every student, and every employer could be jubilant about.

David Russell is chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation

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