The FE news blog - withdrawal of pay deal risks 'long-term disruption'

The FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

Not a surprise, but still shocking. MPs spend 4x as much time discussing academic as vocational - 07 June 2013

Earlier this week MPs in the UK queued up to bang on about the value of vocational education to celebrate VQ Day, but it has now emerged that most of them spend significantly more time talking about academic education.

New analysis from vocational awarding body City amp; Guilds showed that for every minute they spent discussing vocational education, parliamentarians spent four minutes discussing academic education.

The figures were compiled through analysis of activity at Westminster since the 2010 general election.

The analysis also showed 510 MPs (87 per cent) have an academic background, whereas only 78 (13 per cent) have some kind of vocational background[it says on the UK Parliament website that there are 650 MPs in total?].

Time spent on all academic debates was more than four times that spent on vocational education (88hrs 47mins compared to 20hrs 49mins)

City amp; Guilds chief executive Chris Jones said the findings called into question how much policymakers really understood about the value of vocational education.

"The latest figures show that 6 million people took a vocational qualification in 2012 to improve their career prospects," he said.

"It is vital that parliamentarians represent everyone, not just those who choose the academic route."

Mr Jones said it was crucial that vocational education was given greater parliamentary business time, and that more people with backgrounds in vocational education were encouraged to pursue careers in politics.

Stephen Lloyd, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, welcomed the research, saying he was committed to raising the status and profile of vocational education across Parliament.

"I have only just this week spoken in a debate on the future of vocational education and was struck by the high level of cross-party agreement that existed. I look forward to building on this consensus to drive forward the agenda on FE and skills."

Darren Evans

Skills minister marks VQ day by creating a "digital thank you" - 05 June 2013

Today is VQ Day in the UK, the sixth annual celebration of vocational qualifications and the difference they can make to economies and, more importantly, individuals.

The main headline is a set of new figures that reveal more than six million vocational qualifications were achieved in 2012, an increase of one million compared to 2011.

And to celebrate the hard work of vocational learners, skills minister Matthew Hancock has created this "digital thank you".

In a first for Westminster and the government, thousands of people across the country received a video from the minister letting them know how important their qualification is and congratulating them on their achievements.

Mr Hancock, who last night hosted the VQ Day awards dinner at the Houses of Parliament, said the video message reflected the "innovative nature" of many vocational qualifications.

"Vocational learning has been proven to help individuals gain better practical skills to further their careers, or even start new ones," he said. "It is great that we are able to shine a light on this success on VQ Day today."

Writing in today's Guardian his opposite number, the Labour MP Stephen Twigg, said VQs were critical to building a new economy.

But he said too often young people didn't progress, and were stuck in a "revolving door" of low-level qualifications.

He called for a "new settlement" that would give young people a gold standard to aim for, increase the skills of the workforce and support employers to use and develop those skills.

Last night's VQ day awards saw environmental services company Veolia named employer of the year for its commitment to boosting skill levels across its workforce.

In the past five years alone, Veolia's employees have achieved 8,653 NVQs and more than 17,000 vocationally-related qualifications. Congrats to them.

Darren Evans

Ofsted slams Entry to Employment replacement- 04 June 2013

A scheme to re-engage young people in England and help them progress into education, training or employment has been criticised by Ofsted. In a report published today the schools inspectorate said the Foundation Learning provision, which replaced the Entry to Employment (E2E) scheme in 2010, has led to low progression rates.

In fact, in 2011-12 only 49 per cent of learners on the scheme progressed on to full-time education, training, apprenticeships or employment. Ofsted also criticised poor quality teaching and poor quality work experience placements, and said too few learners were working towards functional skills qualifications.

The Foundation Learning provision is for learners aged 14-18 who are working for entry level or level 1 qualifications to progress to level 2, although Ofsted's survey focused on the 16-18 age group. Inspectors looked at evidence from a sample of 59 independent learning providers and community learning and skills providers, but not colleges.

Overall, most of the providers surveyed had either not improved their judgement for overall effectiveness or had actually received a lower judgement for the Foundation Learning provision than they had for E2E. One glimmer of hope, however, was that a "very large number" of learners had improved their personal and social skills, and they had received good care and support.

With the scheme ending in July, Ofsted's findings will be crucial to the development of its replacement,16-19 Study Programmes, which start in August.

Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said the Foundation Learning provision was designed "inappropriately" to focus on qualifications rather than work experience. "Fundamentally, we took the most difficult-to-engage group of people and gave them more of the same," he said. That was clearly not the answer. We said so all along and we are not surprised at Ofsted's findings.

"Obviously some provider behaviour has not been up to scratch and we accept that. We agree with Ofsted that lessons must be learned."

The need for action is urgent; in the first quarter of this year, 152,000 16- to 18-year-olds were not in education, employment or training.

Matthew Coffey, director of learning and skills for Ofsted, said the government and the sector must "learn lessons" from the report. "To break this pattern, providers must make use of best practice in understanding why some providers are succeeding where others fall short," he said.

Darren Evans

Should we celebrate the 20th birthday of incorporation? - 31 May 2013

This year marks the 20-year anniversary of incorporation in FE, when colleges were freed from local authority control, but is it a milestone worth celebrating?

That was the question posed by Barry Lovejoy, head of FE for the University and College Union (UCU), at the organisation's annual congress in Brighton this week.

Mr Lovejoy claimed incorporation was a "competitive, unaccountable market-driven free-for-all" that had wasted time and resources and caused serious instability in the college sector.

"It is my sincere belief that improvements to the learners' experience have been achieved despite incorporation; a result more of the commitment of staff who continue to perform daily miracles against the odds," he said.

Mr Lovejoy also warned that many of the changes afoot in the FE sector, such as greater freedoms for colleges to change instruments of government, merge or set up new independent companies, amount to a kind of "super-incorporation".

Judging by the tone and content of some of the motions debated at the congress, it was obvious most UCU members also felt there was little to cheer.

As well as expressing their anger over pay (see previous FEFocus blog) they also spoke out over lesson observation, workload, governance, funding and, most angrily of all, Ofsted.

In fact, UCU became the latest teaching union to call for Ofsted's abolition in what was a particularly well-received motion.

In making the proposal, Maire Daley, from Liverpool Community College, accused the inspectorate of being a "fear-inducing and intimidating body" and a "ruthless enforcer" of government policy, to loud and lasting applause.

And today delegates voted in favour of drawing up a national strategy to defend post-16 education against alleged attacks from government and restated their support for a national general strike.

Whatever the realities of incorporation two decades on, it is clear that for some working in the FE sector celebration is the furthest thing from their minds right now.

Darren Evans

FE sector moves closer to nationwide strike action - 29 May 2013

The prospect of a national dispute in the FE sector moved a step closer today as members of the University and College Union voted to ballot for strike action.

Angry FE delegates at UCU's annual congress in Brighton resolved to ballot in the event of another "unsatisfactory" pay offer from the Association of Colleges.

Earlier this month the AoC withdrew its 0.5 per cent offer after it was rejected unanimously by the unions, which had tabled a 5 per cent claim.

This latest motion accuses employers of making a "historic bid" to drive down the value of FE lecturers' pay and erode conditions of service.

It said the value of lecturers' pay had fallen by 13.7 per cent over the past four years and the gap with teachers' pay had widened as a result.

Barry Lovejoy, UCU's head of FE, said: "Year on year, lecturers have faced pitiful pay increases. They are not being treated as professionals."

The two sides are meeting next week to see if negotiations can resume. But UCU delegates in Brighton are determined that the unions should push for a better deal.

The first five motions during the congress' FE conference all related to pay, and all were passed.

One attacked the AoC's offer as "derisory" and rejected the attached condition that any agreement should be subject to local control over incremental progression. Delegates agreed that incremental pay progression should be carried out only on a national basis.

In another motion, delegates reiterated their support for the joint union claim for a 5 per cent increase.

If another pay offer is made after negotiation and then rejected as unsatisfactory, a strike ballot will be held as "near as possible" to the beginning of October.

Darren Evans

Whisper it, but maybe the death of the EMA wasn't so bad after all - 24 May 2013

When the education maintenance allowance was scrapped in England and replaced by bursaries, the further education sector feared the move would have a negative effect on students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds.

After all, the total money available to them was slashed by two-thirds in just two years, from pound;575 million in 2010 to pound;180 million in 2012.

But a new independent report on the 16-19 bursaries programme has found that most colleges feel the new fund has been effective.

The study from NatCen Social Research looked at the first year of the bursary fund, and found that 73 per cent of further education and sixth-form colleges and 61 per cent of school sixth forms think it is having a positive impact on participation.

What's more, 84 per cent of further education and sixth-form colleges and 61 per cent of school sixth-forms think the bursary is effective in targeting those with the greatest financial need.

Providers also praised the flexibility of the bursary fund, saying it enabled them to give financial support to young people who rely on it to continue their education or training.

The government said it would use the findings of the report to keep improving the bursary so that disadvantaged young people are supported to fulfil their aspirations.

The Association of Colleges has been quick to praise colleges for making the best use of the new funding. It drafted guidance for its members on how best to distribute the cash among their most disadvantaged students.

Assistant chief executive Julian Gravatt said the work colleges have done to set up the bursary scheme is "impressive" given the tight timescale for implementation.

"I'm pleased there's a recognition in the report that colleges have used the money available effectively," he said. "I think there are lessons in that and good practice to draw on."

These were, he said, signs of a mature and responsive sector.

Darren Evans

Good, but room for improvement. Colleges in Wales face their "state of the nation" - 23 May 2013

After five years of rapid transformation, including mergers and closures, colleges in Wales were yesterday praised for their "vision and determination". But there were also warnings that the FE sector is not out of the woods yet, and that lean times are still ahead.

In what amounted to a "state of the nation" address, Wales' deputy minister for skills Jeff Cuthbert told delegates at ColegauCymru's annual conference in Cardiff they had proved "time and time again" they delivered as a sector. He said FE had "come of age through vision and absolute determination" and colleges were "key players" in their local economies and communities.

The so-called transformation agenda has seen the total number of FE institutions in Wales drop from 25 to 18 in the past half-decade.
Mr Cuthbert said this had been a "great success", creating a "sleeker, more dynamic" structure.

But while their shiny new campuses and state-of-the-art facilities were all well and good, the minister warned colleges they had to do more than just attract as many students as possible. "The goal can't be about ensuring you have large numbers of learners but ensuring the education you provide leads to something more," he said.

For colleges that have relied on past glories the message was clear: complacency is out and flexibility, intuition and accountability are in. After all, said Mr Cuthbert, there's little point in having one thousand hairdressing graduates a year if you know only one hundred of them will find jobs.

"If the market says `we need more builders or plumbers' you should train more of them," he said.

But Mark Jones, chair of ColegauCymru, which represents all of Wales' 18 FE institutions, said the sector had never been complacent. In a veiled criticism of Wales' under-fire schools sector, he said: "We are leading the way, and we are leading by example."

Darren Evans

The "dos" and "don'ts" of recruiting students from overseas - 22nd May

The growing international student market is worth billions of pounds to the UK every year, and further education colleges are increasingly recruiting students from emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil.

But how can institutions be sure that they are approaching the opportunity in the right way, making the best use of their resources and getting the best return on their investment?

Helpfully, delegates at the Association of Colleges' International Conference in London this week were given a list of the "dos" and "don'ts" of international student recruitment.

Dispensing the advice was Peter Brown, former assistant principal of Chichester College, who knows a thing or two about the subject: he helped to recruit more than 2,500 international students a year to his former workplace.

First, he said, colleges have to know why they are seeking to recruit students from overseas. Is it to increase cultural diversity, to spread high-quality education, to improve the academic achievement of students or to retain undersubscribed courses? Or is it simply for the money? Whatever the reason, senior management and governors should be clear about their aims.

Mr Brown advised delegates to use agents. When he left Chichester, the college had 42 agents in Hong Kong alone, and 80 per cent of its overseas students were recruited in this way.

He said that it is vital to be open to new opportunities and never turn business away, and emphasised the importance of building international relationships and partnerships with other providers.

As for the "don'ts", Mr Brown said that colleges should not sell what they cannot offer, and should never use sales people. "As far as I am concerned, the person who is selling the course should be meeting the students on their first day of college and making sure they are successful at college," he said.

He advised against trusting accountants and judging students, and he had some harsh words for the British Council ("in my opinion, they are crap") and the soon-to-be-abolished UK Border Agency ("they are responsible for the destruction of the FE international recruitment market").

Most importantly, he advised colleges not to give up. In this vast and growing market, opportunities are there to be found.

Darren Evans

Withdrawal of pay deal risks `long-term disruption' in colleges - 20 May 2013

A major national dispute could be on the way in the FE sector as the result of a breakdown in pay talks between the Association of Colleges and the trade unions.

In this year's annual negotiations, the unions representing staff in the sector tabled a 5 per cent claim. This would not be binding on colleges, however, as they are autonomous institutions.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) responded with an offer of just 0.5 per cent - a tenth of what the unions wanted - for staff earning pound;15,000 or more; employees earning less than that would get a pound;150 pay rise. The offer was also conditional on the unions agreeing to several commitments, including, crucially, that the unions should agree todiscuss "local approaches to incremental pay progression" in place of current national bargaining.

The offer, perhaps not surprisingly, was rejected unanimously by the unions, which also warned that the AoC's proposal could lead to the introduction of performance-related pay for teaching staff, as is happening in schools.

The AoC has now responded by withdrawing the 0.5 per cent offer altogether.

The University and College Union says the move could mean staff will receive no pay rise at all in the next academic year. Barry Lovejoy, the union's head of FE, said: "The employer's action is unprecedented and places the whole national bargaining framework for colleges in jeopardy.By withdrawing this offer, they are risking a dispute that could be widespread and cause long-term disruption to colleges. For the sake of the sector, rather than taking their ball home, we urge employers to engage meaningfully in negotiation."

But Emma Mason, AoC's director of employment policy and services, said it had withdrawn the offer as a result of the unions' "disappointing response to our proposals on the need for positive engagement in local discussions regarding the need for colleges to be responsive and proactive in the management of an ever-changing environment".

She added: "The negotiations can proceed in June only if there is a willingness from the unions to engage meaningfully in these discussions."

Michael Gove's decision to implement performance-related pay in schools prompted the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions to announce a programme of regional and national strikes. With passions running high in the post-16 sector, it is not inconceivable that the FE unions could follow suit.

Stephen Exley

`Creeping hopelessness': concerns over falling numbers of young people engaged in education - 17 May 2013

On the eve of Adult Learners' Week in the UK, a new study suggests that the number of young and unemployed adults involved in learning has fallen significantly since last year.

Published today, the annual adult participation survey by adult education body Niace reveals a 7 percentage point drop in the proportion of 17- to 24-year-old learners and a 6 percentage point drop in the proportion of unemployed learners.

The proportion of unemployed adults taking part in learning is now at 35 per cent, the lowest level since the survey began in 1996.

The survey's headline figures show no change in the overall level of participation from last year's findings; around one in five (19 per cent) adults are currently learning, and around two in five (38 per cent) have done so in the last three years.

However, over four-fifths (83 per cent) of those who have not taken part in learning since leaving full-time education say they are unlikely to do so in the future.

David Hughes, chief executive of Niace, said he was particularly worried about a 9 percentage point drop in the 17-19 age group.

"If these young people can't see the positive impact learning can have on their lives then it suggests a `creeping hopelessness' among them which could have lifetime consequences on their confidence, self esteem and life chances," he said. "Add this to the increasing number of those who are not in learning who say they will not learn in future and the picture looks extremely bleak indeed.

"We look forward to seeing what impact the raising of the participation age to 18 has on this."

Mr Hughes said there must be an effective strategy to reverse the decline, and called for the government's new traineeships scheme for 16- to 19-year-olds to be extended to the age of 24. He also said employers should play their part.

"Young people deserve the kind of opportunities which will motivate them and help them gain the skills, confidence and ambition they need to overcome the hopelessness they may be feeling that there aren't jobs for them," he said.

Adult Learners' Week runs from 18-24 May.

Darren Evans

Were concerns about consequences of fees for over-24s unfounded? - 16 May 2013

Fears that the introduction of course fees for over-24s might put off potential students could be unfounded, according to a college principal.

From September, people aged over 24 will no longer be funded to study at level 3 - A-level equivalent - and above, but will instead be offered higher-education style loans to pay course fees.

But rather than put people off, Graham Razey, principal of East Kent College, thinks applications from over-24s for level 3 courses at his college are up 40 per cent compared with last year.

Speaking at a Westminster Education Forum FE event in London earlier today, Mr Razey said: "People are saying, `Why wouldn't I invest in my learning if it's going to get me a well-paid job?'"

And rather than pay up-front, Mr Razey claimed potential students told him they were more likely to take out a government loan and pay it back through their salary when they are earning more than pound;21,000.

The government estimates that up to 15 per cent of FE learners will need to take out the new 24+ Advanced Learning Loans, as they are officially called.

Mr Razey's claims were criticised by fellow panel member Toni Pearce, president-elect of the NUS, who said that many over-24s would be unwilling to pay the fees and would lose the opportunity to improve their skills as a result.

"If we are going to be living in a global knowledge economy, we are not going to be winning that race by shutting people out of education," she said.

But Mr Razey, whose college was recently judged it as good with outstanding leadership by schools inspectorate Ofsted, said that he was merely reporting what many potential adult students had told him.

"It is something they value and they will pay for it," he said. "People accept these are challenging times and feel they may have to invest in their future."

Darren Evans

Revealed: The new floor standards that will be used to judge the post-16 sector - 14 May 2013

With little fanfare - and three years after they were first outlined in The Importance of Teaching White Paper - the government has finally revealed the new minimum standards that will apply to all education and training providers in the post-16 sector.

For the first time, the proposed new floor targets will apply to all providers included in the key stage 5 performance tables. These include FE colleges and sixth-form colleges, as well as school sixth forms, university technical colleges and studio schools.

The standards are based on student achievement in both academic qualifications, such as A levels, and vocational qualifications, such as BTECs and NVQs.

Schools and colleges will be classed as underperforming if fewer than 40 per cent of students meet a minimum acceptable point score. This will be calculated using the results of the bottom 5 per cent of post-16 providers; using 2011-12 results, this would have been 194 points for vocational qualifications and 172 for academic qualifications.

The government says it expects the majority to exceed the minimum. Those that fail will be told to improve. If they do not, further intervention strategies will be considered, including withdrawal of funding or even closure.

This will undoubtedly have huge implications for the FE sector. Colleges often recruit students with a weaker academic background, but they will have to compete on a level playing field against schools.

However, Chris Husbands, professor of education and director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, said the standards are long overdue.

"There is too much poor and often unviable provision at 16-19, and comparatively little sustained scrutiny of performance across the sector," he said. "The government is right to develop common expectations covering schools and colleges, and to try to develop indicators which assess performance in A levels and other academic and vocational qualifications taken at level 3."

Darren Evans

Vocational students do better post-uni than those that take a-levels - 9 May 2013

University graduates who took only vocational courses at sixth form or college are more likely to find jobs than those who took only academic courses, according to new research.

A study by consultancy London Economics showed that graduates with BTEC qualifications had an average employment rate of 90 per cent, compared with 88 per cent for graduates with A levels.

BTEC students are as likely to gain a first-class degree as their A-level counterparts, and BTEC graduates in skilled occupations earn more.

The findings will no doubt reignite the vocational-academic debate and put the focus back on the government's reforms to vocational education after the Wolf report, including the new Technical Baccalaureate performance measure.

Helpfully, the study is published on the same day that a consultation on the future of vocational qualifications in schools and colleges is to close.

The study, commissioned by education company Pearson, also suggests that A-level learners take a much more "linear" path, compared with "non-linear" BTEC learners, who have a mix of education and employment experience.

However, over half of BTEC graduates progress straight to university on completing college or after a short break.

Pearson UK president Rod Bristow said that, despite the good news, it was important not to "rest on our laurels". "With historically high unemployment rates among young people, we need to learn the lessons from these insights," he added.

Dr Gavan Conlon of London Economics said that the "blend of skills and motivation" developed through vocational qualifications and that work experience could be key to long-term resilience in the job market.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said that reforms to league tables will allow young people to clearly identify the qualifications that lead to further study or good jobs.

"Our new TechBac places high-quality vocational education on a par with A levels. It recognises excellence and finally gives vocational education the high status it deserves," the spokesman added.

Darren Evans

At last ministers allow us to see the details of the new traineeship scheme - 9 May 2013

The government has finally revealed details of its long-awaited traineeships scheme for young people.

Described as a partnership between employers and education and training providers, traineeships will include elements of work placement, work preparation training and English and maths.

They will be available from August for 16- to 19-year-olds, with the aim of extending the scheme to 24-year-olds in due course.

The government says the traineeships are intended for those who are not in a job but want to work. They should last no longer than six months and are designed to lead to an apprenticeship or secure job as quickly as possible.

Providers can access funds through existing systems while employers can use the government's Employer Ownership of Skills pilot.

Skills minister Matthew Hancock said the traineeships will make a "huge difference" to the skills and aspirations of young people.

But critics attacked the late announcement of the policy amid fears that the sector will not have sufficient time to implement the traineeships properly before August.

There are also concerns over financial incentives. Employers are not required to pay young people for the work experience element, and the scheme falls under an exemption to the national minimum wage.

While some young people will be able to access cash from the government's pound;180 million bursary scheme, the replacement for the education maintenance allowance, there are concerns that many more could be put off applying.

Darren Evans

UCU makes the case for a government u-turn on FE cuts - 7 May 2013

The government's annual spending review next month is widely considered to be the most important event of the Westminster summer calendar, if not the whole year.

Departments and officials are braced for news of the latest cuts to their budgets as tough austerity measures are implemented.

But with the International Monetary Fund recently urging Chancellor George Osborne to do more to boost economic growth, might it be time for a U-turn?

Many in FE hope so and today it was the turn of the University and College Union (UCU) to press the case for greater investment.

In its submission to the spending review, the UCU argues that a highly skilled, highly educated workforce will be the "bedrock" of Britain's future economy, and colleges hold the key to success.

It calls for spending on FE to be maintained at 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product in the short-term, rising to 1.0 per cent in the medium term, citing a 2011 report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills showing vocational qualifications and apprenticeships deliver a return of around pound;35-pound;40 per pound;1 of funding.

It also urges a rethink on the introduction of tuition fee loans in FE, claiming they will have a deterrent effect on lower-skilled individuals.

The union's submission comes as it launches its Knowledge Economy campaign to secure greater investment in education.

"There is mounting evidence to suggest that in our rapidly evolving knowledge economy, high-level skills and education are the key currencies," UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said. "What stronger case could there be for government to invest more in our colleges and universities knowing they are the hothouses of our natural talent - the very bedrock of Britain's future economic success?"

Darren Evans

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