It is finally starting to feel like we are emerging from the immediate, firefighting stage of the response to Covid-19. On the ground, staff and students are adapting to their new learning and work environments and have done so with remarkable creativity, tenacity and resilience. In government, most of the big policy decisions related to funding, curriculum and the workforce have been made or will be made very soon. From our perspective, officials in the Department for Education and the Education and Skills Funding Agency deserve a lot of credit for the collaborative and constructive way in which they have responded to the crisis.
While there are still many more questions than answers, it is right that we now start to consider what life will look like in the post-Covid-19 world. Given that the FE sector exists in a state of near-permanent revolution, education secretary Gavin Williamson’s recent confirmation of plans for a “really revolutionary” FE White Paper will come as little surprise and no doubt be greeted with a degree of scepticism. But our concern lies not with the idea of a White Paper, even a revolutionary one, but with the fact that this will be an "FE" White Paper.
Williamson: 'FE White Paper could be revolutionary'
Our members are large, specialist providers of 16 to 18 education. They primarily deliver a sixth-form curriculum (A level and applied general qualifications) to young people on the road to higher education or professional employment. Their curriculum offer is much closer to that of schools than FE colleges, but with a broader range of courses and delivered in a more mature environment (our students also have lower levels of prior attainment and higher levels of disadvantage than those who attend school sixth forms).
Given the government’s pre-occupation with a skills agenda that focuses almost exclusively on technical education and apprenticeships, an FE White Paper is likely to have little or nothing to say about how to improve the lot of sixth-form colleges, their students or the contribution they can make to the post-Covid world.
Instead of attempting to revolutionise one sector that provides every type of post-16 education to young people, adults and employers, the government should focus on developing a coherent strategy for the pivotal stage of 16 to 18 education. This would be a much more manageable task and would lay the foundations for a comprehensive review of post-18 education, no doubt informed by the recommendations of Philip Augar.
Breaking down the walls
The Department for Education’s starting point in developing a 16 to 18 strategy should be the Department for Education. Breaking down the wall between schools policy and college policy (colleges and "FE" are often used interchangeably) is a prerequisite for success, not least because 16 to 18 is the only stage of education where schools and colleges co-exist and deliver to the same age group in significant numbers.
The proposed FE White Paper will almost certainly not cover the 40 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds who are educated in school sixth forms. But to be effective, a 16 to 18 strategy would need to do just that, and focus on the needs of all students in this age group, not the legal status of the institutions they happen to attend.
Market entry to 16 to 18 education is one area that would benefit from a coherent strategy. There are currently separate processes for adding a sixth form to a maintained school, adding a sixth form to an academy and establishing a free school (16 to 19 or all-through). In addition, the decision to add or create a sixth form is rarely linked to current and future provision in colleges.
With an additional 260,000 16- to 18-year-olds set to participate in full-time education by 2028, there is a pressing need to introduce a single process for establishing new provision based on an impartial assessment of current and future demand in each local area. The same process could be used to oversee the capital expansion fund we have been campaigning for that would allow existing, high-performing sixth-form providers to grow in response to the sharp rise in student numbers.
Addressing market exit, as well as market entry, is also important. For example, the best way to deal with a struggling school sixth form might be for a local college to take it over (or vice versa). But engagement between regional schools commissioners and the FE commissioner is patchy and options for structural change are almost always limited to one sector or the other. More broadly, successive governments have ducked the chance to tackle the underperformance of small school sixth forms, while engaging in endless reform of the college sector. An even-handed approach to performance management, coupled with a more ambitious range of structural options for struggling institutions would ensure that more young people benefit from a high-quality education.
There are many other benefits to developing a coherent strategy for 16 to 18 education, not least helping to ensure that each local area has the right blend of A-level, applied general and technical provision. The leaders, scientists, technicians, engineers and others who will help to rebuild the economy in the aftermath of Covid-19 will, in most cases, have followed the A-level or applied general path during their 16 to 18 education. A 16 to 18 strategy would enable us to consider the opportunity cost of investing so heavily in technical courses for a small minority of students, and reflect on proposals to withdraw funding for well-established applied general qualifications that are popular with employers.
In contrast, an FE White Paper developed on the FE side of the policy wall will have little impact on the vast majority of 16- to 18-year-olds (in both schools and colleges) who pursue a mainstream sixth-form education. Really effective revolutions tear walls down, and that’s what we need to see in 16 to 18 education if the country is to flourish in the post-Covid, post-Brexit world.
James Kewin is deputy chief executive at the Sixth Form Colleges Association