Since 2013, the government has mobilised the FE sector to try to rescue the huge number of young people (about a third) who leave school without a good GCSE grade in English, maths or both.
This is a daunting task, which involves colleges creating new departments, expanding teaching teams and exploring fresh curriculum strategies for hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of students retaking exams. About 200,000 students without the requisite grades have been shared between the 200 or so FE colleges. In my college, last summer we had more than 1,000 GCSE resits to organise; this summer we will have more.
Success depends on being able to recruit teachers who are capable of motivating disheartened students, many of whom have longstanding difficulties with basic skills. Arguably, this requires more highly skilled teachers: hardy and dedicated characters who are prepared to take on class after class of moody and truculent teenagers. This comes after FE colleges have had their funding cut annually for five years.
All of which makes it particularly galling that, far from being praised for this effort, FE colleges have faced regular criticism for not doing a good enough job. Results have appeared low: in 2015 only 35 per cent achieved the required A*-C level. But given the starting point, this is not bad at all.
So why are FE colleges being criticised? There is no doubt that FE has much to improve on, but it is not the cause of the problem. What about the schools sector, which produces nearly 200,000 16-year-olds a year with poor basic skills, making it one of the worst-performing school systems in the developed world? A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report reveals that not only British schoolchildren but also British university graduates have poorer levels of basic skills than those in almost all other OECD countries. And Ofsted inspectors list a catalogue of weaknesses in school-based English teaching in a highly detailed 2012 report, Moving English Forward.
A sustained improvement strategy is needed to bring all schools up to the standard of the best. To my mind, this doesn’t mean yet more tinkering with qualifications, school structures or league tables. It requires a long, hard look at the complex issues behind low English and maths attainment, a problem that has been entrenched in the British school system as long as anyone can remember. We need a proper diagnosis before an effective, long-term cure can be found.
Meanwhile, instead of bashing the FE sector, a huge effort should be going into supporting FE colleges to win the rearguard battle that they are now engaged in. Colleges need extra money to attract and retain top-quality teachers and buy the best resources.
We need an army of researchers and analysts working alongside us to identify and disseminate the most effective curriculum design and teaching methods for students retaking maths and English.
Most of all, we need to change the public narrative from one that puts FE in the dock to one that recognises the heroic efforts being made in colleges to repair the damage done by a defective school system.
If you want FE to bring a message of hope for those who have failed, stop shooting the messenger and start helping.
Andy Forbes is principal of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London. Stephen Exley is away
This is an article from the 20 May edition of TES. 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