The FE news blog

23rd January 2013 at 18:06
Welcome to the new FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

The college where there's no love lost on Valentine's Day - 14 February 2013

You'd think that most people would be pleased to receive a Valentine's Day card.

Not at Halesowen College, though. TES understands that management at the West Midlands institution went as far as drafting in extra security this morning to prevent a special item being delivered.

This was no ordinary billet-doux, however, but a 5ft banner emblazoned with the logo "No love lost", accompanied by a 12,000-name petition. It's hard to imagine this particular declaration of passion proving popular at Clinton Cards.

The card was thoughtfully hand-delivered by a crowd of around 70 college employees who are members of the University and College Union (UCU). They are on strike today in protest at the dismissal of four of the college's maths lecturers back in January.

Just in case you didn't get the joke, UCU regional official Nick Varney helpfully pointed out that "the giant Valentine's Day card is ironic as relations between staff and college management are anything but affectionate".

The college says the lecturers were dismissed because their students had not achieved high enough standards, citing their "consistent failure to ensure that students fulfil their potential and achieve their expected levels of attainment despite significant support from the college over several years".

UCU has a somewhat different take. Mr Varney said the union was "incredulous" that replacement teachers were hired at least two months before the existing staff had been sacked or had a chance to appeal, even starting work on the day the union's four affected members were dismissed.

"The college has some serious questions to answer about its motives and methods," he said, adding that the lecturers' students, while achieving below the national average, had made good progress from a low starting point.

A petition calling on the college to reinstate UCU branch chair Dave Muritu, one of the teachers affected, has been signed by more than 12,000 people.

UCU is hoping to arrange employment tribunals for the affected lecturers, and branch members meet later today to decide whether to take any further industrial action over the dispute.

However, there seems to be little prospect of the college backing down. Principal Keith Bate said: "These decisions are final and as far as the college is concerned all processes have been exhausted and the matter is now closed."

It seems that UCU might have to come up with a new plan if it is to persuade the college to change its mind. FE Focus has an idea. As Easter isn't too far off, how about delivering a giant Trojan chocolate egg (secretly filled with UCU Left activists) as a peace offering? It's bound to work.

Stephen Exley

FE comes under the Wilshaw hammer. Again. - 13 February 2013

This morning, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Matthew Coffey - Ofsted's chief inspector and director of learning and skills, respectively - appeared before the Commons Education Select Committee to discuss the inspectorate's annual report.

It's fair to say that FE colleges came in for a bit of a hammering in this document, which was published in November. Provision, the watchdog found, had worsened. Since then the FE sector has hit back, with the Association of Colleges (AoC) calling for Ofsted to provide evidence to back up its claims.

But if colleges were hoping for a cessation of hostilities, they were to be sorely disappointed. "We were worried last year," Sir Michael told MPs, "and we're worried this year. Things have got to improve quickly." He repeated his concerns - disputed by the AoC - that colleges have become too focused on "capital funding, external reach and going abroad", and have "lost their way" on teaching and learning.

Mr Coffey raised the issue of underperformance in city colleges compared with their counterparts in rural areas. "There is an urban college issue, and in particular a London college issue," he said, adding that some FE governors needed to get up to speed with the extra freedoms and flexibilities they have been handed.

Sir Michael also called on the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to take firm action in cases where "consistent underperformance" needed to be addressed.

In response, the AoC's director of policy Joy Mercer challenged Ofsted's statements, "which", she said, "appear to be unsupported by evidence".

However she insisted that the AoC "shares Ofsted's determination to ensure colleges deliver world-class education and training and encourage our members to adopt best practice. We want to work with Ofsted and our member colleges to find positive ways to continually improve performance and delivery."

In contrast with all the negativity that colleges feel that Ofsted has flung their way, some positive cooperation in the coming months could well reduce the pressure on both parties.

Stephen Exley

EMA lives on in Celtic nations - 12 February 2013

The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) may as well be ancient history in England, but this morning the country gained the dubious honour of becoming the only of the home nations to have abolished the support grant for 16-19 students in full-time education.

Northern Ireland today announced that it would be following the example set by Wales and Scotland by retaining the EMA in an amended form. Employment and learning minister Stephen Farry told the Northern Ireland Assembly that the pound;10 and pound;20 per week bands will be scrapped.

Instead, students will qualify for a pound;30 weekly payment if their family income is less than pound;20,500 and there is one student in the family, or less than pound;22,500 if there are two or more students in the family. Students may also be entitled to a bonus award of pound;200 payable twice a year.

Not surprisingly, EMA supporters have been quick to stick the boot in to Westminster politicians for axeing the scheme. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "England now stands alone as the only nation that does not offer this vital support and must do better.

"Many students in England, who would qualify for the EMA, will be left without the assistance they need to stay on at college, resulting in some leaving education at 16. That makes little sense when we consider the already large numbers of young people not in work, education or training in the country."

Back in 2010, chancellor George Osborne announced plans to axe the EMA in the spending review, branding the scheme inefficient and saying it had very high "dead weight costs". But, more than two years on, it seems that the EMA still has plenty of passionate supporters.

Stephen Exley

Could FE relieve schools' uncertainty over pupil premium cash? - 11 February 2013

While the pupil premium was one of the coalition government's flagship policies when it came into office, many schools do not quite know what to do with it, it seems. An Ofsted report out today concludes that many schools are still not using the extra funding - pound;623 for every child on free school meals - effectively.

Separate research by the University and College Union published on Friday, which revealed that more than a quarter of young people in some parts of the country have no qualifications at all, highlights the urgency of the need to bridge the gap between what the UCU terms the "haves and have-nots".

But could FE have the answer to both of these problems? David Hughes, chief executive of adult learning body Niace, thinks so. He is calling on schools to use their pupil premium funding for family learning.

In this approach, family members are encouraged to play an active part in their children's learning, as well as becoming learners themselves. It includes many different types of activities and takes place in locations as varied as schools, children's centres, museums and libraries, and allows parents to brush up on their own literacy and numeracy skills.

"We think this could bring real benefits," Mr Hughes says. And he could be on to something: children from poorer families often lack the parental support experienced by their classmates in affluent, stable families.

And if many schools still can't make up their minds what to do with the extra funding that is coming their way, this approach could be well worth a try.

Stephen Exley

Gove's `tweak' spells good news for FE - 7 February 2013

One aspect of Michael Gove's recantation this morning might get overlooked in all the gloating but it is important for FE: the reinstatement of vocational qualifications in the main league table measure.

With schools being judged predominantly on the English Baccalaureate (EBac) standard, there was a strong disincentive to introduce students to vocational study at 14. But the new eight-subject measure will count "high quality" vocational qualifications as part of the additional subjects, bringing them in from the cold along with the likes of art, design and music.

The previous emphasis on five GCSEs in English, maths, science, languages and humanities, and the rhetoric about "soft options", had caused a decline in schools offering vocational subjects. Independent education charity the Edge Foundation found that 60 per cent had reduced provision as a result or were planning cuts.

The new measure is good for the overall credibility of the vocational alternative, and colleges and training providers will benefit if pupils have some experience of vocational learning before they look at their options post-16.

Debbie Ribchester, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said she was still concerned that the notion of EBac subjects remained and might continue to drive schools' behaviour.

But she said that the proposed points score across eight subjects was more balanced. "It recognises achievement across a broader range of subjects than the EBac and will reduce the perverse incentives on schools and academies to `teach to the tables'," she said.

The change is also helpful for those colleges planning to take advantage of their new ability to recruit students aged 14 to 16 from September. Now the vocational component, which is the whole reason for giving colleges the power to recruit directly, will get its reward in league tables.

But the decision does leave us with a strange contradiction: league tables at 16, with their integration of vocational and academic subjects and use of "value-added" measures, are more friendly to the nature of FE provision and its student profile than the ones at 18, the age of most of their recruits.

As the TESreported earlier this month, the post-16 league tables penalise colleges on key measures for mixing vocational and academic study, and do not measure progression, only absolute achievement.

So while Mr Gove witnesses the joy in heaven of a sinner who repents, perhaps he would like to consider whether he has any other offences he would like taking into account.

Joseph Lee

Despite legislation, the SEN cliff edge in FE appears to be going nowhere - 6 February 2013

Last year, TES took an in-depth look at the government's attempt to transform post-16 education for people with learning difficulties or disabilities. What we found was an important new right to special needs support for 16-25-year-olds, albeit one that faced a host of difficulties in implementation.

Yesterday's publication of the Children and Families Bill addressed some of these problems. The strange decision to terminate the combined education, health and care plans if students take up an apprenticeship has been reversed: apprentices will have the same rights as anyone else.

There was also some progress on maintaining support for older students who temporarily leave education. Originally, the draft bill proposed that if someone left education after 18, their education, health and care plan would end. The common occurrence of students dropping out to change course would mean that they faced lengthy reassessment or the absence of the help they need.

The government has promised that if a young person leaves education between the ages of 19 and 25, it will trigger a review by the local authority to see if they should be supported back into learning.

Campaigners say this isn1t enough. "Local authorities are under no legal obligation to support the young person back into education should they not deem it the best possible option for the individual," said Mark Atkinson, director of policy at Ambitious about Autism.

Mencap went so far as to say that the bill will ultimately make "no real difference". The charity highlighted a lack of national standards that it says mean "the quality of a young person1s education will continue to be determined by where they live, rather than what needs they have".

It also points out that although the care plans are supposed bring together all aspects of the young person1s needs, there is no legal requirement for the NHS to provide for the health needs. If you can1t even get to college, educational support is redundant.

And all that is leaving aside the concerns that even a rising budget for students with high levels of need will not meet the demand. At a conference yesterday organised by Ambitious about Autism to mark the introduction of the bill, Professor Patricia Howlin from the Institute of Psychiatry set out some stark figures about why the transition from school matters.

Her study of the long-term outcomes for autistic adults who have IQs in the normal range showed that most struggled to establish an independent life.

More than half had never worked. More than three out of four said they had no specific friendships; the same proportion had never had a sexual relationship.

"When I first started working in autism, the focus was on little children," she said. "There was a huge lack of adequate schooling. We are now in much the same position with school leavers as we were with school starters some decades ago. We need to be fighting for a better future for them."

Joseph Lee

The name game for FE's new professional guild - 4 February 2013

Proposing an FE Guild to oversee professionalism in the sector was one of John Hayes' final acts as skills minister, and the proposals have also been backed by his successor, Matthew Hancock. But while the organisation's grandiose provisional title, akin to something from the Middle Ages, may have Mr Hayes' fingerprints all over it, its name is by no means set in stone.

A consultation published over the weekend on plans for the FE Guild reveals that the title is "still open to debate", following "numerous comments" calling for it to be reconsidered.

While the broad concepts behind the guild come as no surprise - it would focus on "defining workforce qualifications and standards, continuous professional development, research into teaching and learning, sharing best practice and leadership and management" - a few more concrete ideas have emerged. It is envisaged that the guild will "have a relatively small executive team" and rely heavily on partnerships with existing organisations in the sector. Given that the bid to run the guild was drawn up jointly by the Association of Colleges and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, this arguably makes sense.

The ultimate aim will be to represent everyone in the sector, although the limited amount of funding available means that the initial focus is likely to be on teaching staff. We'd like to hear your ideas for a name for this new organisation. Please bear in mind the outright hostility in the FE sector towards the Institute for Learning's plans to increase its membership fee back in 2011.

With that in mind, how about we start with the Society That Really Indulges Further Educationalists? Or STRIFE, for short.

Stephen Exley

Drop in apprenticeships for 16-19s as tougher test takes effect - 31 January 2013

There is plenty to celebrate in today's apprenticeship figures. The total number of starts passed 520,000 last year, and growth is particularly strong at level 3 and in sectors such as engineering.

But there is also a troubling development: confirmation that the recruitment of 16-19 apprentices fell last year, and that it continues to fall in the provisional figures for the first quarter of this year. How worried should we be?

Labour says it's a reflection of a poor economy and a sign that the government isn't successfully engaging with small businesses. "With youth unemployment at almost 1 million as a result of the Tories' economic failure, ministers need to get a grip and boost apprenticeship opportunities for young people," says shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden.

Skills minister Matthew Hancock acknowledges the drop but says it's a temporary fall caused by the tougher criteria introduced last year. "It is a fall but it's less than the amount of provision that we stopped because of concerns over quality," he says.

Some of the evidence seems to back him up. Apprenticeships for teenagers only fell at level 2, held more or less steady at level 3, and the small number of higher apprenticeship starts actually increased. Level 2 apprenticeships are where the quality problems are more likely to be found.

The sector mix also looks encouraging. Retail apprenticeships, responsible for a lot of the coalition's early expansion, are only up by 5.4 per cent. Engineering and manufacturing, meanwhile, is up more than 20 per cent to 59,000.

IT apprenticeships took a hit with the elimination of programme-led apprenticeships that affected Zenos, later rebranded as Pearson in Practice before it left the market altogether: they fell 5.1 per cent.

So there is clearly something in the idea that changes in the rules aimed at improving quality caused numbers to drop at 16-19. But one problem is that the numbers aren't bouncing back: they fell by 4,000 in the last quarter of last year, and were still down by 4,000 by October.

The fear, then, is that there aren't enough high-quality places to substitute the ones that have been banned because they weren't real jobs or were too short to constitute real training.

There is another reason to believe that there's an underlying problem with the employer demand for under-19s: the new rules were announced in May last year but the recruitment drop began in the previous quarter.

Interestingly, the only category that grew for under-19s in the first quarter of this year was higher apprenticeships, which increased by 200. Given the need for a prior level 3 qualification, it's almost certain that these were all aged 18.

Professor Alison Wolf, the government's adviser on vocational education, has said that the job market for 16- and 17-year-olds is gradually disappearing. If so, it's bound to affect apprenticeships and we may have to get used to it.

FE looks inwards to produce Cradle of new research-based teaching practice - 30 January 2013

Ofsted is experiencing a backlash against its claim that teaching in colleges is substandard, but independently of the inspectors, FE is taking an increasing interest in how to create great teachers.

The latest development, following the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning, is a partnership between the Institute for Learning and the University of Wolverhampton.

Yesterday they announced that they would together develop a research centre into FE teaching, called the Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education (cutely acronymnised into Cradle).

"The time is right for new action and a greater national commitment to research in further education," said the IfL's chief executive, Toni Fazaeli. "For too long, despite some outstanding contributions, we have lamented the relative paucity of university-led research focusing on FE, compared with schools and higher education.

"Learners and employers rightly expect the practice of teaching, training and learning to be based on sound and groundbreaking research and evidence, rivalling the very best in the world."

What is potentially most interesting about the move is its capacity to link together the practice of teaching and research. In the past, that gap has meant that the research that did exist could be overlooked: for instance, the Economic and Social Research Council's teaching and learning programme produced more than a dozen papers on FE in the past decade but whether it influenced teaching practice is doubtful.

The IfL has an advantage in its direct link to its members in FE teaching. Not only will it be able to disseminate the findings about what works, it should also be able to canvass teachers for the questions they need answering. Ms Fazaeli even suggests that it will offer a forum for FE teachers to carry out their own research.

It's true that the IfL lost 100,000 members in the war over membership fees, and isn't the universal influence it once was. But for a project like this, it's probably better to have a smaller group of motivated volunteers than a conscript army, anyway.

Joseph Lee

D'oh! Turns out the love of learning is what it's all about - 28 January 2013

Good news - you're not wasting your time. That's the conclusion from new research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which found that "learning improves career prospects".

While it may have seemed obvious to anyone in the education world who sees their former students head off to newer and better careers, it's nice to have the effect quantified, we suppose.

About a third of FE students got a better job as a result of their learning, according to the Ipsos MORI poll of 4,000 people. Promotions went to 18 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women, and overall earnings rose by an average of 2.75 per cent at the end of their course.

Given that the interviews were with people who finished their studies in 2010-11, still in the doldrums of a global recession, that's not a bad performance.

But still, the blunt obviousness of the conclusion - that qualifications are good for your career - prompted an acidic remark from Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers: "We can only hope that now the government has recognised the importance of FE, they put an end to constant cuts to funding."

In fact, the report is less dumb than the department's announcement made it seem: it questions learners on a wide range of topics and has some useful information about attitudes to fees and loans. It found that 50 per cent of learners currently paid no fees, and that the higher the qualification, the less likely students are to pay.

Strangely, however, only the 50 per cent of students currently contributing to their courses were asked if they would consider loans. One hopes that the government has not written off half the population already.

An aspect that may be overlooked is that for most students learning isn't about money at all: 60 per cent said they were learning for non-economic reasons. These crazy mavericks were mostly motivated by the desire to learn something new or because of a personal interest in the course.

The skills system is obsessed with catering to the needs of employers and the economy, but it's worth remembering that adult education is largely driven by students' curiosity and enthusiasm.

Joseph Lee

Money for nothing? Apprenticeship providers will not have to account for their contributions - January 25 2013

The ongoing failure of the skills system to persuade employers to invest is somewhere between a scandal and a farce. But today's publication of the government response to the skills select committee report on apprenticeships makes it clear that ministers have no appetite for changing the situation.

Employers are supposed to contribute 50 per cent of the cost of apprenticeships for students 19 and over. The catch is that they don't have to pay cash, and can instead offer in-kind contributions; they don't have to quantify them; and no one monitors whether they make them anyway.

According to a review of employer contributions by the former chairman of the Learning and Skills Council, Chris Banks, in 2008-9 colleges and training providers were only able to collect pound;75 million from employers, while pound;1 billion of public money was spent on them.

As the MPs put it, the practice of offering publicly funded training for nothing "suggests either that the quality of training is being compromised in order to reduce costs or that too much public money is being spent on training that the employer should be funding."

So they proposed a simple step towards ensuring that businesses pay up: require those using public funding for apprenticeships to publish a statement of their contribution, which the training provider passes on to the Skills Funding Agency.

Unfortunately, even that was too much for the government. "In support of policies to cut bureaucracy we do not agree with requiring employers to publish their contribution, and would be concerned that this requirement could put employers off engaging with the programme," it said.

Is providing a statement once a year really too onerous in return for a share of a billion pounds of investment? Or is it rather that the government doesn't fear that they'll be put off by the bureaucracy, but that they will be put off by the cost of the contributions themselves?

Joseph Lee

Will funding match the reforming zeal of the new A-levels? - January 23 2012

One of Michael Gove's characteristic tricks is to use the rhetoric of progressive education to sell what are essentially traditional policies. That has been in full effect today as he proposes a return to the A-levels of the 1990s by portraying it as a lifeline for the most disadvantaged students.

"This will allow students to develop a better understanding of their subject through the greater maturity that will be developed over two years of study - something that I know teachers believe can be particularly important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds," he said in a letter to Ofqual.

His plan means undoing the changes introduced by Curriculum 2000 and replacing its continuous string of modular exams with papers testing the accumulated knowledge of two years' work. AS-levels will revert to being a standalone qualification with half an A-level's content.

Just over two years ago, however, Cambridge University was making precisely the opposite case to Mr Gove: it credited these reforms for its improvements in widening participation. According to Cambridge, modular AS-levels and A2s helped to give disadvantaged students the confidence to apply to top universities, knowing they had already succeeded in some of their exams.

As the TES revealed at the time, admissions director Geoff Parks warned Mr Gove: "We are worried . that if AS-level disappears, we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade."

Exactly who believes that disadvantaged students will thrive more under high-stakes, end-of-course testing, on the other hand, Mr Gove doesn't say.

But by raising the stakes at 16 to 18, Mr Gove also highlights another issue: given the importance of these years, why does he provide less funding for students at this critical time than for any other period of education?

It's a problem that is increasingly bothering sixth form colleges, which can't cross-subsidise with other age groups, as the Department for Education protects pre-16 school budgets from austerity, leaving 16 to 19 isolated.

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, sees a silver lining in that introducing new, tougher exams in 2015 gives DfE an argument to protect 16 to 18 funding in the next spending review.

But he says that on current estimates, students receive 22 per cent less funding when they move from year 11 to year 12. If these exams are so important, shouldn't the funding reflect that?

Joseph Lee


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