It was a single tweet that sparked fury. For the Department for Education, it was painfully embarrassing; for many in the FE sector, it was downright offensive. And it dredged up decades of disgruntlement about further education being regarded as a second-rate alternative; a perception that the government is desperately trying – and, it seems, abjectly failing – to shift.
Yesterday evening, the DfE’s official Twitter account published a helpful message for students set to receive their A-level results on Thursday, outlining the options available. The only problem was, it listed just three: university, apprenticeships and employment. Colleges and other FE providers didn’t get a look in. Not surprisingly, many in the sector were quick to pounce on this glaring omission – myself included.
Or study at a college or FE provider... 🤦♂️ https://t.co/CPVND2xz8H— Stephen Exley (@stephenexley) August 13, 2019
Someone at the DfE signed this off. The exclusion of #FE from the list of options is shocking and scandalous. The minister needs to be held to account - it’s on their watch.— David Powell (@DavidPowellHud) August 13, 2019
The Department was quick to pump out positive messages this morning to limit the damage, with education secretary Gavin Williamson personally thanking FE staff for their work.
Congratulations to the thousands of students receiving their vocational and technical results today – and thank you to FE staff for all of your hard work too. Great work from @stephbreakfast & @BBCBreakfast for highlighting great students & the brilliant work being done.— Gavin Williamson (@GavinWilliamson) August 14, 2019
The National Careers Service’s director, Joe Billington, also acknowledged the “fantastic opportunities offered by FE colleges and across the FE sector”. But, based on the strength of feeling expressed on social media - even shadow FE minister Gordon Marsden branded the omission a "disgrace" – it was too little, too late.
Omission of further education
Let’s be honest: after years of underinvestment and underappreciation, those of us who care deeply about the FE sector can be a tad touchy over perceived slights towards it. But there’s no escaping the fact that, whether intentional or not, this was an absolute howler. It came hours before vocational results day – a badly-needed, hugely-welcome celebration of students taking non-academic qualifications, in no small part down to the tireless campaigning of FE’s leading advocate in the broadcast media, Steph McGovern.
And yet mere hours before we awoke to see students at Boston College starring on BBC Breakfast, FE colleges – where one in 10 higher education students take their degrees each year – didn’t even get promoted as an option in the DfE's tweet in question.
We have had a fantastic morning celebrating vocational achievement live with @stephbreakfast on @BBCBreakfast— bostoncollegeuk (@bostoncollegeuk) August 14, 2019
You can catch up on all the action here - https://t.co/znaKq1dzRZ pic.twitter.com/4NRwwfJhQk
Vocational education 'playing second fiddle'
In it, he spoke of his frustration that “technical and vocational educational has played second fiddle to traditional academic options for too long”, adding: “As the first education secretary to personally take charge of further education and skills, I’m going to make sure that those people who opt to take a technical or vocational qualification are given the proper recognition for their hard work.” If only this message had been embraced by the DfE’s social media team.
While such statements of support are hugely welcome, they are only the start. What the FE sector needs is a government which walks the walk, as former special adviser Jon Yates puts it, not just talks the talk. In recent weeks FE has been lauded by our former and current prime ministers. Yet the sector is still chronically underfunded, and the news that a short, one-year funding settlement is on the cards means that the badly-needed injection of sustained, sustainable investment is looking less and less likely. And while the DfE has tried hard to spin the fact that there is no longer a dedicated skills minister as a positive, it's difficult not to see this as a backwards step.
A symptom of genuine ignorance?
Plenty of observers have pointed out that the omission of FE from the tweet in question was likely to have been an innocent symptom of genuine ignorance among Department for Education civil servants who have been educated through the university route. In the interest of fairness, it is worth pointing out that the DfE knows this is a problem, and is taking steps to address it through its FE immersion programme. But enough is enough: this apparent institutional bias against further education must end.
In terms of getting the message right, the solution is arguably simpler than you might expect. Grand statements about the historic underappreciation of FE simply reinforce the notion of inequality that they purport to be challenging. Would it not, rather, be easier to simply make sure that colleges and other FE providers are treated the same as other parts of the education system, and given an equal billing? Often, as the Association of Colleges' head of communications Aaron Hussey has pointed out, simply adding the words “and colleges” to statements about schools is all that is required. FE doesn’t need special treatment – all it needs is equal treatment.
Stephen Exley is FE editor at Tes