Learning should not be a solely utilitarian pursuit

The government’s vision for education is a great starting point, even if it falls short of the learning society many would like to see, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

Learning cannot simply be utilitarian - it has to enrich people's lives, says David Hughes

Amid the many announcements made this month by the Department for Education (DfE) was one that hardly got a mention – the publication of its Outcome Delivery Plan 2021-22.

This was not very surprising, really, when there were so many announcements of interest, particularly for colleges, reflecting the new moment in the sunshine for post-16 education and skills.

The Outcome Delivery Plan does warrant some consideration though, given that it provides direction for the 7,340 full-time equivalent staff in the DfE on how to best spend around £96 billion in funds. The plan also sets out the four main priorities, a little bit of vision and strategy, the cross-government working and the performance metrics.

All of this is probably of more interest to some than others but I confess I am fascinated by it all for a number of reasons, some of which I’ll share here.

First off, I’m pleased to see the DfE positioning itself at the heart of Covid recovery and the economic rebuild needed as we also face up to the opportunities and challenges of a net-zero carbon emissions target.

That’s a great starting point, even if the vision for education it embraces falls short of the learning society many of us would like to see: one in which learning is valued as much (or more) for it’s part in a civilised, just, tolerant and inclusive world as it is for its contribution to the labour market and productivity. For now, I’ll take the positives but continue to argue for the wider benefits of learning.

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The plan sets four priority outcomes, the first of which is about economic growth through improving skills and productivity, and supporting people into work. For someone who has campaigned long and hard for a higher profile for colleges, it’s great to see this given so much prominence because colleges play a central role in delivering it. Much of it could have fallen out of an Association of Colleges strategy, or been copied across from the work of the Commission on the College of the Future, with a strong focus on raising the profile of technical education, boosting the skills of unemployed people and those at risk of unemployment, and recognising that the funding and accountability system that colleges are subject to needs changing.

There are some helpful nods to the cross-Whitehall working that many of us have been pressing for and some useful metrics to assess performance. The metrics for the first priority are worrying though – most have gone backwards in the past few years, so hats off to the DfE for being open about that.

Examples include the fall year on year in apprenticeship starts and achievement rates, as well as the drastic reduction in numbers of learners aged 19+ and 25+ from the 20 per cent most disadvantaged areas (from 727,000 in 2015-16 to 499,000 in 2019-20 for 19+, and from 547,000 to 381,000 for 25+). Improving those metrics will require big investment wins in the spending review as much as anything else.

Finally for this priority, there is a very welcome emphasis on improving access to further and higher education. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee is part of that, even though there seems to be resistance to writing it fully into the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. The other major point is how the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) will play out from 2025. The skills bill has enabling clauses in it for the LLE but no detail, so we won’t find out how this will change higher education funding until the autumn, when the DfE promises to publish a consultation on what will be, in effect, the implementation of the Augar proposals.

Waning enthusiasm

So far, so good, but my enthusiasm for the Outcome Delivery Plan quickly waned once I started reading about priority two, which has the laudable ambition that children and young people in every part of the country be prepared with the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need. Once again, this is a little too utilitarian for my liking: where is the enrichment, the wider experiences, the empowerment and agency which would nicely balance with the narrower aims?

Just as worryingly, while colleges were a strong focus in priority one, in this priority, they get only one mention here and that is only on digital resources in the Covid-recovery section. The rest of the priority seems wholly focused on schools, even though some of the metrics require college delivery (the percentage achieving GCSEs in English and maths and level 3 by age 19, for instance). It’s all very odd, too, given that around 650,000 young people study in colleges (more than in school sixth forms). It’s as if working with colleges is not an important part of the strategy for young people and it feels very different to the skills priority where colleges are central.

That theme of the missing colleges runs through the third priority, which is about supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people. This is a potentially worrying omission given the imminent Green Paper on special educational needs and disability, where once again, colleges play a critical role, and in the wider work colleges do with those young people who have been left behind by schools. Having said that, schools are not mentioned much in this section either, so I may be reading too much into it.

The fourth priority is about early years, in which many colleges play a small role as providers. The emerging work on family hubs looks interesting, given the potential of family learning in overcoming generational disadvantage.

Finally, it was pleasing to see a strong section on advancing equality, with a focus on access, geographical inequalities and inequalities in educational outcomes for different groups of learners. There’s more to be done on this section but this is a good start in measuring differential outcomes and understanding what that data says about inequalities in education. I hope it gets even stronger in next year’s plan.

With college accountability under the spotlight, it is good to see the DfE setting out how it can be held to account. I for one am looking forward to the progress report next year to see how it got on.

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David Hughes

David Hughes

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

Find me on Twitter @AoCDavidH

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