What hope of lasting change in education?

Are we about to see major change in education or will the sparks fade as we return to the status quo, asks Phil Sayles

Phil Sayles

Coronavirus: Will we see lasting change in the education sector and in FE colleges?

Education, and certainly skills, have never been at the very top of political or public agendas. But the pandemic has put the realities, issues and challenges of education in the public eye as never before. There has been serious cut through on exam U-turns, the unfairness of algorithms, and, not least, the realisation of how challenging and complex 2020s education is. There has also been gratitude from millions of parents trying to juggle locked-down kids with lockdown work.

But where will change stick, especially for further education? Where have we already crossed the rubicon? Where will potential new dawns fade to the status quo? Which issues need a continued, tactical push to get them over the crest? Most importantly, what actions might achieve that?

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First, let’s consider a few of the runners and riders in the change race.

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Better online learning, for good? Or at least lots of content? This has probably got over the line, with the years' worth of accelerated staff and student skill development of the past 10 months. The provision of millions of devices, and initiatives on connectivity, create a new playing field, not necessarily fully level but better. But the pitch is going to need continually tending and investment, lest it slip when offline learning rightly regains the lion’s share of time.

The end of exams? The questioning of the value of conventional, exam-heavy assessment after two years without it, brings the opportunity for seismic change, with growing support from headteachers and some politicians. But this is a huge issue, and not even at base camp yet.

Peak university? Well, peak three-year residential degrees maybe. Maybe. Everything augured by Augar? Will student debt, fewer jobs that need graduate skills, and a shortage of people willing and skilled to take on other roles needed by society make a difference? The impact of a dire year for degree students on many campuses? But UCAS applications are up 8 per cent. A port in a storm for the young, repaid (by someone) in the future. An increase in Level 4 and Level 5 technical education…much more likely. But delivered by which institutions?

The time of colleges? The White Paper, and the broad government narrative leading up to it, give the strongest skills focus for a decade or more. Here, strong economic and political imperatives form the backdrop: a post-Covid recession, higher unemployment, maybe less economic migration, the challenges and opportunities of Brexit. All should bring the need for a more skilled, right-skilled workforce to the fore. But will this translate into an adequately funded future?

Which will tip over into decisive change? How can we give these things a little push? Thinking about this, I remembered Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, in which the author explores the nature of pivotal change through examples and stories, such as the decline of crime in New York in the 1990s.

Gladwell examines a range of factors at play where change happens. He talks about the "stickiness" of messages which are simple and attractive enough to lodge in the minds of those who need to make choices (an issue for complicated themes such as education). He explored societal factors (the "power of context"), though acknowledged later that he did not give these enough weight in his arguments.

The third factor, in his recipe for successful change, is the impact of individuals as communicators, whether sharing facts, persuading others or utilising their connections and popularity to lead the way.

For FE, there are clearly some big societal needs in place, waiting to be met. Tick. Simple messages. Less so. That’s a tough one, even with policymakers. What I’m also interested in is how the changes in communication methods that the pandemic has wrought might impact and be harnessed to advance causes.

Social media shares simple messages. The now ubiquitous, effective, online meeting solutions make understanding ideas, and getting buy-in for them, coordinating campaigning and lobbying, easier. Conferences, once attended by the few with golden tickets, can be mass, guiding, motivational events: thousands had a seat at the Association of Colleges' recent conference. Hundreds, supposedly even thousands, watch podcasts or webinars.

We’re all better at communicating via video, in more persuasive ways. As a sector, our confidence and resolution has grown. Through really understanding the potential impact of using these now ubiquitous communication methods, which we stumbled into nearly a year ago, planning tactics more effectively amongst ourselves, and developing value-driven "sticky messages" for coordinated, widespread lobbying, we can better influence decision-makers and the public.

These factors could make all the difference this time around the policy hamster wheel, for our students, communities and organisations. Or, as has happened before, will many hopes fade away, as (we pray) Covid-19 does?

I think the reality in life is that the majority of things never change quite as much as we think they may.

But I think there are some battles that can be won. They need to be picked and fought cleverly by many. Especially those stemming from the White Paper, including advancing Level 4 and 5 education in colleges. The fact that there is a skills White Paper is a good indicator in the first place. The sector needs to engage positively, with the confidence that we know exactly where on the runway the many proposals need to touch down for a successful landing.

Phil Sayles is principal and chief executive of Selby College

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