The FE news blog

29th November 2012 at 12:23
Welcome to the new FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

What's wrong with adults' maths skills? - December 13th 2012

If you had a sense of dj vu at headlines this morning reporting that nearly a quarter of adults' maths skills are at or below those expected of 9-year-olds, you weren't wrong. These headline figures of the Skills for Life survey - the first to be conducted since 2003 - were first published last year.

What they show, along with many more details in the full 425 page report, published this morning, is two very different stories for literacy and numeracy. More than pound;5 billion spent on basic skills led to some important gains in literacy, with those who have skills equivalent to a good English GCSE rising to 56.6 per cent, from 44.2 per cent in 2003. That's more than 4 million extra people who've reached the Government's minimum standard for a good job.

But literacy is becoming more sharply divided between the haves and have-nots. While the numbers with good literacy skills are rising, so are the numbers with the poorest skills. Five per cent of adults were assessed in the 2011 survey as having the lowest level of literacy, up from 3.4 per cent in 2003 - this represents an extra 600,000 people.

It may be a result of increased immigration with the expansion of the EU in 2004, but it reinforces a theme that adult education campaigners at Niace have been insisting for several years: more needs to be done to integrate basic skills training with other social services to widen access to hard-to-reach groups.

The other issue is: why are maths skills doing so terribly? Starting from a low base, they have declined even further since 2003, with the numbers achieving a good GCSE standard falling from 25.5 per cent to 21.8 per cent.

Yet this was happening at a time when school leavers' grades were improving - more than 58 per cent now leave with a good GCSE - while an older generation with less education was dying out. In fact, the under-25 age group, who took their GCSEs after 2003, had weaker performance than older groups.

It's not merely a case of grade inflation, because young people made a positive contribution to literacy improvements: the survey noted that since 2003, schools have been converting larger numbers of level one readers and writers to level two, driven presumably by league tables.

Nor is it exactly that people forget their maths as they use it less in adulthood: while numeracy declines more than literacy over time, the researchers said even for the oldest generation, the effect isn't dramatic.

Could it be that GCSE maths isn't doing a good job at teaching skills that adults can use? Niace believes its experience working with the army on improving basic skills shows just that: students with GCSEs don't always pass the army's entry level tests.

Their theory is that maths needs to be more contextual and relevant to work and world outside school. "When we try and say that to Government, Michael Gove isn't very happy," said Carol Taylor, director of development and research at Niace. No surprise there.

FE minister practices what he preaches and hires an apprentice - December 12th 2012

Of all the politicians who really should show support for apprenticeships, our new FE minister Matthew Hancock - personally responsible for the programme - must be top of the list. So it is worth nodding approvingly at the news today that he has actually hired one.

He is not alone. Labour leader Ed Miliband has hired one too through the Parliamentary Academy, dubbed Westminster's first apprentice school, as have 10 other MPs.

The scheme, which has cross party support, offers 18- to 24-year-olds who haven't been to university, a paid, 12-month placement in an MP or peer's parliamentary office. At the same time, they study for an NVQ in business and administration.

Mr Hancock said the scheme "is an excellent way to give someone who is passionate about politics the opportunity to earn a fair wage, doing a real job in Parliament, whilst studying for a great qualification". Hear hear.

It was also revealed today that the number of unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds fell by 72,000 to 945,000 in the three months to October. While this is a step in the right direction, perhaps a few more ministers should look into hiring their own apprentices to help make the next set of figures look even better.

A quiet response to a very big announcement - December 11th 2012

Yesterday, a couple of working days after its self-imposed deadline, the Department for Education finally made the announcement that colleges would be able to recruit 14- and 15-year-olds directly, as predicted in Friday's TES.

Beyond the details proposed by the principals on the implementation group and laid out in our magazine story, FE minister Matthew Hancock said colleges would have to be rated good by Ofsted or be able to show they were improving, and would be expected to set up dedicated 14 to 16 centres.

But the announcement appears something of a damp squib and attracted surprisingly little attention for what Middlesbrough College principal Mike Hopkins, co-chair of the implementation group, has described as one of the biggest changes in education for 30 years.

Press releases were sent out on Sunday with an embargo for Monday, according to a DfE spokesperson. But some journalists did not receive it until Monday afternoon. Many others did not receive it at all. It is still not published on the DfE website, even though that was updated today.

As a result, with one exception, the national media hasn't covered the development at all. That's a particular shame, because if college recruitment is going to make a difference, the message that they have new options needs to goouttoparents and students, not just education professionals.

Introducing competition at 14 between schools, University Technical Colleges, FE and sixth form colleges is controversial, but the way to resolve that isn't to pretend that it hasn't happened. It would be a shame if the DfE itself was adopting the same code of silence that some schools already use to protect their numbers at 16.

Could a national centre solve FE's "worsening" issue of teaching quality? - December 10th 2012

A national centre of excellence for vocational teaching should be created to establish a "gold standard" of practical pedagogy, a report for the City and Guilds Skills Development Centre says.

Coming in the wake of Ofsted's stinging criticism of college's teaching at the end of last month, the report by the University of Winchester's Centre of Real World Learning aims to set out the skills required by workers completing vocational courses today.

It concludes that industry needs employees with more than "routine expertise" and who can "make good decisions in a real situation, at a specific moment in time". They apparently need six key characteristics: technical expertise, resourcefulness, commercial sense, functional skills, craftsmanship and pride in their work, and an attitude of constant improvement and learning.

The report argues that vocational education is particularly complex, requiring technical knowledge and an understanding of students' needs, but says too little has been done to establish a widely accepted vocational pedagogy.

It also advocates the national centre of excellence as a way of creating and sharing the best teaching techniques - a role that may become more important with the announcement today of the termination of funding for the Learning and Skills Improvement Service's quality improvement service.

"To ensure vocational education delivers the type of worker that employers want, we must take a fresh look at the outcomes of vocational education - and the way in which it is taught," said Charlynne Pullen, senior researcher at the City and Guilds centre. "That's why we believe that it is time for the sector to develop a widely accepted vocational pedagogy, rather than one that's borrowed from general education."

The thinking behind the chancellor's college building spending splurge - December 6th 2012

Why did George Osborne open the national wallet yesterday to offer an extra pound;270 million for college building projects? The answer arrives today: because 37 per cent of college buildings are currently rated poor or inoperable.

That's revealed in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' FE college capital investment plan. There's better news in some research about the effects of investment in campus buildings: for every pound;1 million spent,between 62 and 86 additionalstudents enrol. And in the biggest projects, worth more than pound;60 million, colleges are able to bring in more private sector cash, with their dependence on public funding falling by 5.5 percentage points.

An expected improvement in success rates wasn't evident in the research, however, but even so, it seems as though capital investment is earning its keep. So there you have it.

What Osborne's Autumn Statement means for FE - December 5th 2012

George Osborne's autumn statement had two implications for FE that were highlighted in the speech - an extra pound;270 million of capital funding and the beginning of a skills funding role for Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Buried in the supporting documents were a couple of other changes: the publication of HE-style course information on student satisfaction and employment outcomes and more money for employers to commission skills' training.

The additional pound;270 million of capital means there will be a total of pound;550 million for college buildings over the next two years, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which says it will publish a capital spending strategy tomorrow.

By the time Building Colleges for the Future collapsed in 2009, however, there were bids demanding more than pound;5 billion, so it's likely to be some time before the ambition of renewing every college campus in England is fulfilled.

We won't know exactly how influential LEPs will become until at least the spring, when Government promises its response to Lord Hesletine's proposal to put them in charge of skills funding.

But the Chancellor said that from April 2015 "more of the funding that currently goes to local transport, housing, skills and getting people back to work" will go into a "single pot" that LEPs can bid for. How much of that funding gets diverted will be revealed in the spending review next October.

While the fate of the Skills Funding Agency may depend on that, for colleges and training providers the important issue will be ensuring their LEP has a high demand for skills, if they are competing with transport and housing projects.

The autumn statement calls for colleges and LEPs to have members on each other's boards, and colleges will surely want to influence their local partnership to ensure skills get their fair share.

Mr Osborne promises to give LEPs a strategic role in skills policy: they will set local strategies by July 2013, and FE colleges' proposed chartered status will be linked to following those priorities. LEPs are also expected to bring together bidders for funding in the employer ownership of skills pilots, which were given an extra pound;90 million to bring the total to pound;340 million.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has long been demanding more Which?-style information about the benefits of FE courses, and the Treasury has clearly been listening.

The autumn statement says that Government will publish information about FE courses on the National Careers Service website such as student satisfaction and employment outcomes. There is, in fact, already a Learner Satisfaction Survey, supported by the National Union of Students, which forms part of the FE Choices website (its days are presumably numbered).

Employment outcomes, including the salary levels achieved, might be much harder to determine, however: to get the HE results, the Higher Education Statistics Agency commissions a survey of about 60,000 students twice a year. And that, it goes without saying, is a lot of work.

"Google College" could be a solution to dwindling funding - December 4th 2012

A new report has proposed the extraordinary idea that multinational companies buy stakes in FE colleges - creating "Google College" or "Dyson College".

The idea comes from the Skills Commission, a group bringing together FE sector experts and parliamentarians, chaired by Labour MP Barry Sheerman and Dame Ruth Silver, former principal of Lewisham College.

With public investment in freefall, the report argues that colleges need to develop specialist, employer-led provision. That could come in the form of partnerships with individual employers, Local Enterprise Partnerships, or new branded colleges backed by blue-chip companies.

Alternatively, colleges could take on the role of consultancies for business development in their area - which the commission nicknames "McKinsey Colleges" after the management consultancy.

It also suggests that specialisation might be the answer to the criticisms of teaching quality made by Ofsted. The commission said that Ofsted data shows specialist colleges perform better: of the 17 specialist institutions, 14 are rated good or outstanding.

To an extent, the report acknowledges it is building on previous initiatives such as Centres of Vocational Excellence andvarious employer-college partnerships. What's new is the implication that an employer might want a branded college - or that they would pay for it.

Presumably, however, a Google or Starbucks' College would be a hard sell in the current climate. For tax reasons.

Does Wales point the way with emphasis on vocational qualifications? - December 3rd 2012

The FE sector in Wales has long called for more collaboration between schools and colleges - a desire that would be familiar in England too.

So it should come as no surprise that ColegauCymru, which represents colleges in the principality, has warmly welcomed the findings of a major review into 14-19 qualifications.

Led by former college principal and TES FE Award winner Huw Evans, the review board received widespread coverage, including in the TES, when it recommended that Wales keep GCSEs when England ditches them in 2015.

The report, published last week, also recommends that the Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification, an umbrella skills-led qualification, be adopted by all schools and colleges as their overarching qualification, which was exactly what ColegauCymru had pushed for.

ColegauCymru chief executive John Graystone was particularly pleased the report avoided the "artificially stark distinction" made between general academic qualifications and vocational qualifications.

The report made a number of recommendations on vocational qualifications, including that the Welsh government should adopt the European convention of categorising them as either Initial Vocational Education and Training (IVETs), which are introductory and do not lead to occupational competence, or Continuing Vocational Education and Training (CVETs) which do.

Speaking at ASCL Cymru's annual conference last week, Huw Evans bemoaned the fact that the media wanted to focus solely on the planned changes to GCSEs.

"In reality," he said, "a strong vocational qualifications system is important for all of us."

Sixth form colleges fail to come to decision about collective switch to academy trust status - November 30 2012

After what was by all accounts a pretty heated debate about their future, members of the Sixth Form Colleges Forum (SFCF) yesterday voted to explore the option of becoming academies. But don't get too excited just yet: they also decided to consider not becoming academies. Oh, and a third option - staying as incorporated colleges, but increasing their engagement with academies and sharing their expertise - is on the table too.

But given the enormous consequences of the entire sector converting to academy status en masse, a degree of caution is perhaps advisable.

FE Focus understands that colleges are split on how they want to proceed: some are keen to become academies to secure a more prominent role in the system - and extra funding in the process. But others are, for now at least, unwilling to risk their independence and autonomy. But interestingly, both camps have signalled their backing for the course of action proposed by SFCF chief executive David Igoe: an "all of nothing" tactic. Either they all - even the colleges rated inadequate by Ofsted - become academies together, or the sector stays as it is.

This safety in numbers approach should give the SFCF a strong hand through its planned negotiations with ministers in the new year.

Should all sixth form colleges convert to academy status? - November 29 2012

Today is crunch time for the sixth form college sector. As TES reported last week, members of the Sixth Form Colleges Forum (SFCF) meet in Birmingham to discuss whether mass conversion to academy status would help them get the profile - and funding - they feel they deserve.

But would the government really want them to convert?

On the one hand, to have more than 90 sizeable and - on the whole - high-performing institutions collectively educating 150,000 students, volunteering to become academies would be a massive public relations coup for education secretary Michael Gove.

But it is worth remembering that according to most measures of success, sixth form colleges outperform schools by some way, despite receiving significantly less funding.

A collective move to academy status would force the Department for Education to fork out millions in conversion costs. And with the average sixth form college's VAT bill standing at more than pound;200,000 a year, it's hard to imagine the Treasury being too chuffed with the prospect of losing out on approximately pound;20 million a year in revenue.

The colleges would no doubt hold out for a decent offer from the DfE if they are to make the leap. They value their ability to borrow money on the open market - an option currently only available to academies in exceptional cases. And sixth form colleges are reportedly keen to retain their national structure negotiating staff pay and conditions; a concept that is anathema to Mr Gove.

Little wonder then that, despite the department making overtures to the SFCF about conversion in the early days of the coalition, messages filtering through from the corridors of power now suggest ministers are neutral to the idea, and content for colleges to make their own minds up.

Read our previous FE news blog


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