Opinion: 'Why proof of FE's impact should prompt ministers to step back from the precipice'

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Excessive use of computers can lead to stress and sleeping disorders. Having close relationships with friends and family during childhood makes people happier in later life. Knocking back a few pints tends to lead to an individual finding members of the opposite sex more attractive.

It’s amazing how using academic research to back up a statement of the obvious can magically transform it into a groundbreaking news story. In an era in which evidence-based policy is king (in theory, at least), having the data to confirm what everybody really knew all along can be a powerful weapon. This is certainly the case when it comes to the latest – genuinely groundbreaking – research into the impact made by the further education sector.

At first sight, the conclusions made by Peter Urwin, Augusto Cerqua and their colleagues from the University of Westminster and the Fischer Family Trust are remarkable only in their obviousness:

  1. Young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to attend FE providers than their more affluent peers.
  2. ​Students who fail to achieve “good” passes at GCSE are the most likely to end up in FE, in search of a second chance in education.
  3. Of the students who are eligible for free school meals, far more go on to achieve level 3 qualifications in FE than in schools.
  4. The FE sector has a key role to play in helping learners progress to higher education and – most crucially when it comes to attracting the attention of ministers – apprenticeships.

None of these conclusions will come as a shock to anyone with even a passing interest in FE. Until now, however, there has been no way of conclusively proving these self-evident truths, making it easy for ministers to continue trimming more and more from the FE budget. But thanks to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills allowing access to data on 1.9 million students who have passed through the education system since 2004, Professor Urwin and his team have been able to come up with as close to proof of the transformational impact of the FE sector as it could hope for.

The research even gets to the crux of the role FE has to play in terms of the buzzword currently doing the rounds in Westminster: productivity. “Some of the greatest opportunities for boosting UK productivity,” Professor Urwin argues, “will only be achieved if we can unlock the potential of those who have innate ability, but…give up on education at an early age.” The researchers are correct to point out that the impact of FE in this regard is “transformational”. Further cuts to the sector could have “the largest negative impacts on productivity than proposed cuts in any other area of spending”, Professor Urwin adds.

As the Association of Colleges’ chief executive Martin Doel points out in this week's magazine, the increasing number of young people currently making their way through the school system will eventually become teenagers. “There is a real likelihood that ministers and officials who oversee the downscaling of post-16 education now will want to put it back together at the end of this Parliament,” he adds. But let’s not give up hope. There is a possibility that, faced with this new evidence, ministers will pull back from the precipice. In keeping with the mission of the FE sector, they have a second chance. Based on past evidence, few would expect them to change course. But let’s give them the opportunity to prove us wrong.

This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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