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Exclusive: Ministerial interference is derailing success of FE sector

The Policy Consortium's latest report concludes that the role of the secretary of state is at the root of much of the policy instability and volatility in the sector

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The Policy Consortium's latest report concludes that the role of the secretary of state is at the root of much of the policy instability and volatility in the sector

Government ministers are more of a hindrance than a help to the FE sector because of policy volatility caused by “yo-yo” change, according to new research by Policy Consortium.

In its latest FE and Skills System report, the Policy Consortium set out to find out if further education and skills policymakers and stakeholders are creating the conditions for success or failure.

The report’s author, Tony Davis, said their conclusion was simple: “Respondents are unequivocal about the policy decisions that have failed to create the conditions for success.”

While the report identified 23 key issues that have prevented the creation of conditions for success in the sector, it stressed: “Underneath all of the root-cause issues so skilfully identified lies a significant common denominator: the unintended consequences of policy volatility.” There have been 32 secretaries of state with responsibility for FE in less than 40 years, which has added to this volatility. 

Davis added: “From medicine to engineering, all practical sectors of our society know that adverse symptoms cannot be addressed directly. We can no more fix a brain tumour with paracetamol, or a leaking engine with thicker oil, than we can poor English skills with yet more poetry.”

Biggest negative impact

Two-thirds of the principals, vice-principals and governors who responded to the study said it is the English and maths GCSE resit policy that has the biggest negative impact on their work.

Respondents were not critical of the aspiration to secure numeracy and literacy skills for all, but of the manner in which the Department for Education attempted to implement change. “Sustainable quality improvement can only be brought about by addressing the underlying, root-cause issues that produce an adverse symptom,” the report stated.

David Corke, director of policy at the Association of Colleges, said: “This work highlights the fact that the current policy arrangements are not achieving the intended outcomes.” He said that the AoC agrees with the principle that young people need to continue to study English and maths, but appropriate flexibility is needed to solve the issues with the policy.

“Flexibility with exam dates to suit learner and employer needs would be useful, but more importantly we need to utilise the professional judgement of practitioners to select the appropriate qualification for each learner,” he added.

'Watershed moment'

Mr Davis said the publication of the report could be a “watershed moment for the sector," adding: “It is time for an end to the cliché of ‘change is the norm’. We want our providers to research, invest, succeed and grow, for the benefit of those they serve now, and those they will serve for years to come. Yo-yo change does not provide the right conditions for this vision,” he added. “We are all very familiar with the phrase ‘systemic failure’. It is now time to create systemic success.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Students who leave school with a good grasp of English and maths increase their chances of securing a job or an apprenticeship, or going on to further education, which is why we want people to master those skills and secure good qualifications.

“We will continue to work with the post-16 sector on this challenge and we recently announced a further £48.5 million investment to improve maths teaching for post-16 over the coming five years.”

A launch event for the report will take place at 24 Greencoat Place, Westminster, London on 26 April.

This is an edited version of an article in the 13 February edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click hereTes magazine is available at all good newsagents

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