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‘“Good in parts, failing in others”: My Ofsted-style report on FE policy’

Dr Paul Phillips, principal and chief executive of Weston College, writes:

Education remains a priceless commodity in today’s world, but its complexities of approach creates no small amount of chaos. It is subject to meddling from politicians making changes; some of them necessary, others that add to our bureaucratic environment. My sector, further education, is in many cases making a massive contribution to both the skills agenda and the economic recovery at a time of significant change.

I have been principal at Weston College for a significant period of time and have the luxury of hindsight when I see new initiatives; I remember them when they were introduced many years previously, albeit under a different badge. My career has included work in colleges in both England and Wales, and many of the changes I have seen have been necessary and needed. In some cases, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water, in others the changes are less welcome. 

So, what might an inspectors’ report on the current situation read like? How about something like this:

- Skills strategy: Displays good insight but lacks practical application often deterred by loans and bureaucracy – In need of improvement

- Ofsted/quality: A rigorous start to this cause has been achieved, attention to avoidance of previous errors is crucial – Good

- Teaching and learning: Abolition of the Certificate in Education/PGCE strategy shows a lack of concentration and attention to detail – Inadequate

- Skills Agency loans: Lacks structure and justification and ignores basic principles – needs a significant rewrite – In need of improvement

- Education Funding Agency: Has shown considerable progress in the past but has made bad errors of judgement in funding for 18-year-olds and the learning difficulties/disabilities funding move to Local Authority – Good

- Apprenticeships: Brilliant exposè on 16-19 strategy let down a little by employer ownership pilots and being too restrictive on application – In need of improvement

- Skills Funding Agency: Despite significant interface has maintained a focused strategy on skills but let down by lack of income – Good

- Bureaucracy: Has shown significant progress on reducing this area, but there is still some way to go – Outstanding

For education to remain ‘priceless’ there must be a consistent strategy and in some ways the government has masterminded such a system through the two agencies – the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and the Education Funding Agency (EFA).

The biggest problem we face is that of loans: currently at age 24+ but now being threatened at an earlier age, plus the 17.5 per cent cut for 18-year-olds. It is a shambolic bit of strategy and one that needs major change and rapid intervention.

In 2013 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills introduced a new system of loans for FE courses, a close copy of the higher education model. There was general opposition to this plan, which would also include apprenticeships, based on the logic that the apprenticeship agenda is very different to that of core learning and that the learners themselves were also quite different in nature.

In conclusion, we are working in a system which is less rewarded than schools but one that has demonstrated outstanding responsiveness to the whole skills, teaching and learning agenda. We have welcomed the reduction in bureaucracy and we have coped with the cuts that have been necessary as this government attempts to get the country back on track. We recognise the need for a change but we must remember that education is priceless, not pricey.

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