Is ignorance really bliss when it comes to FE?

Ben Verinder takes a look at what the sector can do to change its fortunes and raise awareness

Ben Verinder

Yesterday, the DfE omitted FE from a crucial tweet about post-A level choices. What can the sector do to raise awareness?

While it is a truth universally acknowledged that the further education sector is misunderstood and ignored by those in power, recent evidence suggests otherwise.

The outgoing and incoming prime ministers have spoken forcibly about the urgent need to invest in FE. As Brexit looms, politicians and policymakers line up to make the case for skills investment.

On the other hand, as my mother would say: praise doesn’t pay the bills. Nor are platitudes necessarily sincere. When Boris Johnson set about appointing a new set of government ministers, it appears he forgot to select a skills lead. The job finally fell to education secretary Gavin Williamson in a fudge that, according to insiders, is unlikely to benefit FE.

Background: 'Proper recognition' pledged for vocational education

Opinon: Gavin Williamson will lead on FE - but is it good news?

More on this: How an 'absolute shocker' tweet incurred the fury of FE

'Whatever' the results

Nor do politicians have a monopoly on ignorance. On Wednesday morning the Department for Education tweeted that "whatever" their results on Thursday, A-level students could choose between university, apprenticeship or work.

There was no mention of further education, despite its role in delivering qualifications at Level 4 and higher and supporting "second chancers" – and, in a spectacular example of the hospital pass, the DfE ended its message by linking to the National Careers Service, thereby suggesting that they too shared this flawed and partial view of the world.

What lessons can we learn?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. In 1997 the Kennedy report lambasted "the appalling ignorance among decision-makers and opinion-formers about what goes on in further education. It is so alien to their experience."

And there is the rub. Our views of institutions are most powerfully shaped by our experience. School is a universal experience. As is, for most politicians and civil servants, university. But further education may well not be.

What can the FE sector do?

It matters that politicians and policymakers have a rudimentary appreciation of FE and what it does because:

  • Awareness is a necessary condition of support.
  • It reduces the risk of harmful unintended consequences.
  • It is in the sector’s gift to mitigate ignorance.

Firstly, it should encourage and help government to expand its FE emersion project across and beyond the Department for Education. Wednesday’s social media blunder illustrates that communications teams should be included as standard! There are around 8,000 civil servants working in DfE and its executive agencies and non-ministerial departments. Just over 200 people (2.5 per cent) have taken part in the emersion scheme. In an ideal world, provider visits would become part of the induction process throughout the DfE and those parts of other departments (such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) that work closely with FE.

Secondly, individual colleges and training providers could do so much more to get the basics right. As Alastair Campbell suggested to Association of Colleges conference delegates back in 2004, the story of FE is told by "joining up the dots" of individual institutions. Yet in the communication materials of colleges and private providers, one still struggles to find the basic facts about what they are and what they do. Hyperbole and marketing messages are published in the place of facts about student and staff demography, course types, locations, turnover, regulation and governance.

Thirdly, institutions can make much-needed improvements to the ways in which they use ambassadors who are familiar with what they do, in order to raise awareness among a more general public. While colleges, for instance, have done a fantastic job of engaging politicians in the #LoveOurColleges campaign, we know through our work with many of them that their capacity for mobilising alumni and businesses, for instance, is too often partial, piecemeal, under-resourced and capricious. 

Taking control

Finally, FE institutions are swamped by questionable, time-wasting information requests from government and its agencies. Taking more control of the data agenda could reduce this burden while allowing for the collection of intelligence that would address significant blind spots that contribute to political and policy-maker ignorance of FE.

For instance, government policy in recent years has been heavily informed by the principle that progress between levels (and into employment) in FE is poor. This axiom informs Ofsted’s approach to colleges, the development of T levels, the view of Treasury and much more. Yet, as a recent Twitter exchange with former special adviser Jon Yates confirmed, the matter of poor progress is not supported by robust sectoral data.

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is true. While there have been legitimate fears in the sector about an accountability regime that makes institutions answerable for factors they cannot control, that’s an argument about the means, not the principle. The progress "belief" contributed to poor funding. FE lost out because opinion beat fact.

Pushing for a system that collects robust and reliable progress data would be one way to correct that injustice. If providers are worried that the evidence will reveal awful progress then they are unscrupulous for not wanting to use the evidence to address the problem, and suckers for not understanding that those in power think it is rubbish already…so what’s the worst that can happen?

Ben Verinder is MD of Chalkstream research and consultancy

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