The FE news blog

16th November 2012 at 16:01
Welcome to the new FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

The real story behind those negative Ofsted headlines about our sector: November 28 2012

Speaking at the launch of Ofsted's annual report at the British Library yesterday, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw bemoaned the fact that the college sector has been "neglected".

If the headlines generated by his comments about the apparent under-performance of the sector in this morning's newspapers are anything to go by, perhaps there really is some scope for the media to "shine a light" on colleges after all. But the key question is whether the Department for Education or newspapers are prepared to turn their gaze away from schools for long enough to take notice.

One of the main concerns flagged up by the watchdog was the fact that, for the second year in a row, not a single college was rated outstanding for the quality of its teaching and learning.

The Association of Colleges freely admits that it finds this "baffling", and would love to get its teeth stuck into the statistics behind this. The only problem is the lack of data in the slimmed-down new reports makes this nigh on impossible.

We at FE Focus hate to be pedantic, but we feel compelled to point out that, after bravely volunteering to be subjected to one of Ofsted's first "no-notice" inspections earlier this year, Exeter College did indeed receive top marks for its teaching quality.

Unfortunately for Exeter - and the rest of the sector, as it turns out - this was only a pilot, so wasn't included in the national figures for the 201112 annual report.

But, given the inspectorate's disproportionate focus on the lower-performing colleges under its current inspection arrangements, perhaps a little bit more credit should be apportioned in cases where it is genuinely due.

As things stand, though, Exeter principal Richard Atkins and his team will have to content themselves with the glistening trophies for "outstanding provider of the year" and "outstanding leadership in learning and skills" which they received at the TES FE Awards earlier this month.

We know they're outstanding really, even if Sir Michael doesn't want to admit it.

Ministers seem fired up by Dragon's report into apprentices: November 27 2012

A government-commissioned independent review of apprenticeships has recommended a fundamental overhaul of their design, funding and assessment - with changes mostly aimed at increasing employer influence.

The Richard Review, led by US-born entrepreneur Doug Richard, a former dragon from Dragons' Den, has today proposed that the funding for apprenticeships goes direct to employers, through a system of tax credits much like the current system for research and development subsidies.

The price of having greater control is that employers would have to pay the up-front cost of training and claim retrospectively. Mr Richard said that in the case of small businesses, training providers might defer their fees until after the tax credit was paid.

Whether ministers will commit to adopting the entire review is as yet unclear, but the noises coming out of government suggest that the recommendations will receive a positive reception - Michael Gove certainly seems pleased with its findings.

Having to bear the initial costs of apprenticeships, Richards said, would force employers to ensure value for money and relevance, and drive out employers who were not motivated to train.

"There's no worth to what you don't pay for. We need employers to be paying for it so that they ask, is this training providing good value for money? Right now, they're not asking that question," he said.

Employers should also be given responsibility for the design of qualifications, with government holding competitions to establish a single qualification in each occupation.

In return for direct funding, the expectation is that employers will engage much more with the skills system. "We're looking for sector leaders to step up," he said.

Assessment is also marked for reform: in line with education secretary Michael Gove's demands for all qualifications to be externally assessed.

Training providers had too many incentives for their apprentices to succeed to carry out assessment, Mr Richard said. He also criticised continuous assessment of apprenticeships, saying: "An apprenticeship's goal is training, not assessment. We seemed to have turned this on its head."

The report also recommends restricting apprenticeships to new employees or those moving to a new role and in need to substantial training. Teresa Frith, the Association of Colleges' skills policy manager, pointed out that the tougher rules "would therefore necessarily reduce the numbers of those taking part".

The AOC, she said, supports the report, "in the main", but was clearly aware of the risk that some colleges could be frozen out of an employer-controlled system. "There may well be some significant challenges for all stakeholders when it comes to implementation, particularly when considering the proposed funding route," she said.

The full report is available here.

Details of post-14 recruitment and funding finally emerge: November 23 2012

FE minister Matthew Hancock may have pulled out of confirming the arrangements for colleges to recruit at 14 at the Association of Colleges conference earlier this week, but following some behind the scenes arm-twisting, a Department for Education official has now all but spelled out what will happen next year.

David Russell, director for participation and vocational education, told the conference yesterday that the details of the radical change would be published within ten days and that they would be in line with the recommendations made by the working group of principals.

"I recognize that there has been a bit of disappointment in some quarters that [Mr Hancock] didn't put more flesh on the bones and give more policy detail," he said, yesterday. "DfE is 100 per cent committed to implementing this recommendation from the Wolf Report."

The Education Funding Agency revealed that 14- and 15-year-olds will be funded according to the new formula for 16 to 19, a necessity because there is no national funding formula for under-16s at the moment.

Sample figures suggest that under-16s in colleges could attract between pound;4,060 and pound;5,210, depending on whether they came from a deprived area (though these funding rates are not final).

If they qualify for free school meals or are in care, they will also get the pound;900 pupil premium. But it will be colleges' responsibility to identify who qualifies and register it with the EFA.

By comparison, school pupils can attract funding of between pound;3,600 and pound;7,000 depending on where they live, which could make college at 14 more attractive in areas with lower funding.

According to the working group's proposals, colleges will recruit students just as they do with older students, rather than using local authority applications. But they will have to write and publish an admissions policy, as well as setting up an appeals process, to comply with regulations.

Colleges will have a "readiness-to-open checklist" similar to that used in free schools to ensure they meet all the requirements.

But the question for principals in the audience was clearly how they would be able to get access to pupils in school to explain the options. A mention of the chances of visiting schools provoked loud and mordant laughter.

Harrow College principal Tony Medhurst, who co-chaired the working group, said that it was vital for colleges to approach under-16 recruitment with "integrity", putting the interests of students first. But he said the decision promised to create "a fundamental change in the educational landscape".

OCR expands its plans into HE as it takes on the all-powerful BTEC: November 22 2012

It's fair to say that OCR's Cambridge TEC qualifications didn't have the best start in life. Despite the exam board declaring back in June that they would crack the "monopoly" enjoyed by Edexcel's all-conquering BTECs, in less than a month they were gone. Mostly because lawyers acting for Edexcel's owner Pearson pointed out the more-than-passing resemblance between the names of the respective qualifications.

But OCR was quickly back in the saddle, rebranding the TECs as Cambridge Technicals. In this new incarnation, they have managed to stick around for a bit longer, and there was more good news at the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Birmingham. OCR announced a partnership with the Open University, with brand new level 4 and level 5 Cambridge Technicals being unveiled to offer a new vocational route into higher education.

Indeed, the Technicals can even be used towards getting a full honours degree with the OU, and OCR reckons this will give colleges another "HE in FE" pathway. They can also be studied full-time or alongside a job on a part-time basis.

Kudos to OCR for bouncing back from its early setback. Just don't mention the new courses' similarity to the BTEC Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs).

It must be a coincidence.

One possible explanation for the missing announcement on 14+ recruitment: November 21 2012

With colleges eager to prepare for next year's intake, one of the announcements attracting most attention at this week's Association of Colleges conference is one that never materialised: the Government finalising the rules under which colleges can directly recruit 14- and 15-year-olds.

Matthew Hancock was widely expected to make a detailed announcement, but instead made a vague promise that it would happen in time for the September intake. "There's no shilly-shallying," he said, under questioning from the BBC's Kirsty Wark, saying that it had taken almost a year of work with the sector to get to this point.

FE Focus understands that the announcement was due to be made, but was pulled at the last minute. Well-informed observers suggest, however, it's not the usual conflict between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Michael Gove that is behind the delay.

Potentially, colleges recruiting younger students could be a threat to the intake of schools and academies. But there's an even more direct conflict with University Technical Colleges (UTCs), which recruit at 14.

Former Tory education secretary Lord Baker, the chief promoter of the UTC idea, has already made it clear that he does not want colleges to compete with UTCs. In an editorial for the Times, he said colleges should give up part of their campuses to UTCs and concentrate on post-19 education in the style of modern polytechnics. It is clear that this is not someone who would relish the arrival of competing technical and vocational institutions at 14.

And Lord Baker has proved himself more than capable of running a parallel education policy: many observers were impressed with the amount of money he wrung from George Osborne for UTCs in the coalition's first budget, when it was austerity for everyone else.

Given that Mr Hancock has publicly committed to direct recruitment at 14, no doubt he will deliver eventually. But whether colleges will be able to recruit in great numbers, in the face of substantial political opposition, is another matter.

A YTS for the Coalition era? November 20 2012

Earlier this year, the TES took an in-depth look at youth unemployment and what, if anything, the education system could do about it. One thing stood out: data compiled by David Miliband's commission showed that under-18s were left almost unscathed by the biggest economic crisis in 70 years, because they could exchange employment for full-time education.

For over-18s without a place in university, however, the situation is absurd - thanks to a decades-old rule, if they start full-time education, they lose their benefits.

Now the evidence is mounting that the coalition is finally tackling the issue. Matthew Hancock, the FE minister, told the Association of Colleges conference today that the Government "must reform the way our skills system and our benefits system interact".

"How can we justify a system in which we pay people so long as they don't train, rather than support people so long as they do?" he said. "It's bad for the economy, it's unfair on young people, and it has got to stop."

Details are scarce at the moment as to how this will be achieved. Mr Hancock told reporters after his speech that Universal Credit, the elaborate replacement for six existing benefits being pushed by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan-Smith, would make the 16-hour rule (which prevents job seekers on benefit studying for any longer) obsolete.

But Universal Credit is so complicated, it will take until 2017 to fully implement. Young unemployed people can't wait that long.

Perhaps Mr Hancock was unable to go into detail because the policy is coming from Downing Street, as the Mail on Sunday has suggested. It says the proposal, dubbed "earn or learn", will cover 18- to 21-year-olds and is being sold as a tough crackdown on the culture of easy benefits.

That's one way of looking at it. The other is that it effectively extends maintenance grants for learning to the "other 50 per cent" who don't got to university. Presumably that's why Labour MP and former education select committee chair Barry Sheerman has long favoured a change like this. It'll be interesting to see how Labour responds to this initiative, something that very much resembles a Youth Training Scheme for the post-raising-the-participation-era.

No college for old men: November 19 2012

The over-50s have been driven out of colleges and onto the internet, according to new research by Niace, which suggests learning for older people is increasingly becoming a solitary activity.

A survey of more than 4,600 people aged over 50 showed that the numbers studying in college fell from 21 per cent in 2005 to just eight per cent in 2012. The fall wasn't entirely unexpected: it's a result of the previous Government's reduction of funding for leisure learning, dismissed as flower arranging and holiday Spanish.

What ministers hoped was that informal learning would fill the gap. And to an extent, it has: an increasingly digitally-savvy older generation has increased the amount of learning it does online. More than one in eight are now learning through the internet - the number was so low in 2005 that the question was not even asked.

The survey found an overall rise in independent, self-organised learning but it warned that the trend was not necessarily positive, with learners missing out on the social benefits. "Government policy has led, directly and indirectly, to a major withdrawal by FE and HE institutions from provision for older people," Stephen McNair, author of the Niace report, wrote. "While much of the gap seems to be taken up by private and voluntary activity, it is not clear that the same needs are being met, or that this is necessarily the most effective way of achieving broader social policy goals."

Overall, about one in five older people were involved in learning, with computing as the most popular subject. For those still in work, health and social work were the leading subjects, while retirees tended to chose arts and languages.

Employers appear more willing than ever to invest in older workers: the number of over-55s on courses paid for by employers rose from just under a quarter to just over a third.

Mr McNair predicted that learning for older people was likely to become increasingly common: the generation now in their 40s had much wider access to higher education, and people with more education were much more likely to continue learning.

For more on this story read the NIACE report


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