Will Wolf's tough talking take FE to next level?
Professor Alison Wolf cannot be accused of pulling any punches with her review of 14-19 vocational education. At least 350,000 young people aged 16-19 end up surviving on a "diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little to no labour market value", according to the academic from King's College London.
Following education secretary Michael Gove's similarly forthright response - it is, he argues, "morally wrong" that tens of thousands of students take courses "which offer no route to higher levels of education or the prospect of meaningful employment" - FE colleges could be forgiven for feeling somewhat battered and bruised.
Other than the popular, if belated, recommendation to allow FE teachers with QTLS (qualified teacher learning and skills) status to work in schools - already approved by the Department for Education - many in the sector feel the reporting of the Wolf review has created a generally pejorative perception of vocational learning.
This fails to acknowledge its author's profuse praise for the majority of vocational qualifications, which she says are of "a very high standard" and amount to a "respected, valuable and important part of our. educational provision".
Institute for Learning chief executive Toni Fazaeli is worried about how the report has been interpreted. "We are concerned that criticisms made of some vocational education may be seen to taint the whole of vocational education," she says. "A lot of excellent vocational education currently takes place in England, delivered in the FE sector by high-quality teachers and trainers."
But while few would go quite as far as Mr Gove in lauding Professor Wolf's "brilliant, and ground-breaking, report", many of the hopes and fears of the sector do appear to have been taken on board.
According to Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of large colleges, the review is clear that it is "the centralised design of qualifications and the way they have been used by Government agencies that is the core of the issue, not colleges".
Association of Colleges president Chris Morecroft welcomes the review with "cautious optimism" and says it displays some "very sensible, clear thinking".
"The purpose of the review is not so much about congratulating (the sector) as recognising what needs attending to," he says. "It ain't broke, but there are bits of it that need attending to."
Mr Morecroft agrees with the review's focus on the importance of English and maths, with Professor Wolf calling for learners aged 16 and over who do not have a grade C or higher at GCSE to resit the subjects or take steps to improve. But he warns that leaves the sector with some "difficult problems" to solve, not least finding enough post-16 teachers for the subjects.
Mr Morecroft also believes that more detail is needed on the review's recommendation that a set amount of funding be made available per student for each course, to adhere to the maxim that "the funding should follow the student".
"Does she want colleges to get x pounds per head?" he says. "For example, science and engineering require more kit and cost more money (than other subjects). What sort of discretion will principals get to use money appropriately?
"Whether we're talking about a student with special educational needs or a student doing four A-levels, they both deserve the same amount of attention. But the number of hours doesn't necessarily equate to the same level of resource.
"Not all colleges have the same mix of provision. What about colleges which specialise in areas such as hairdressing, catering and engineering? They will rapidly run out of money."
But Mr Morecroft agrees with the review's recommendation that it should not be compulsory for qualifications to be included in the qualifications and credit framework (QCF). "There is a plethora of bureaucracy with the QCF and Ofqual that needs to be streamlined and money saved for the front line," he says.
The report also calls for the legal right of colleges to enrol under-16s to be made explicit for the first time, to the delight of City and Islington College principal Frank McLoughlin. "Many 14 to 16-year-olds thrive in different environments outside school," he says. "We believe that offering provision for them in colleges also makes good economic sense, especially at a time when we need to ensure efficient use of public funding to deliver high-quality teaching and training."
West Cheshire College principal Sara Mogel agrees - provided the youngsters continue to learn on a "broad educational basis". "For a small minority, that could be the best route for them," she says.
But while welcoming Professor Wolf's focus on the core subjects of English and maths, Ms Mogel remains sceptical as to whether expecting all learners to achieve a GCSE of grade C or higher in the subjects is feasible. "Not everybody can achieve that benchmark," she says.
As well as expressing concerns about yet more funding changes - "We seem to experience them on an annual basis" - Ms Mogel is frustrated by the review's recommendation that colleges give students a broad range of experience and encourage "non qualifications-based activity", at the same time as massive funding cuts for enrichment activities are being implemented.
The Young People's Learning Agency revealed in its 16-19 funding statement that "entitlement funding", which covers tutorials and extra-curricular activities, would be reduced from 114 hours a year per student to just 30.
Ms Mogel says: "We're being asked to broaden students' experience but the enrichment funding we use to do this is being cut. Thirty hours doesn't even cover our one-to-one tutorials."
Apprenticeships were also lauded in the report, with Professor Wolf concluding, "Good apprenticeships are valuable as much for the general skills they teach as for the specific ones", and recommending that employers of apprentices receive funding for providing a general education through off-the-job learning.
Ms Mogel recognises worrying shadows of the much-criticised apprenticeships of the 1980s, which were widely derided for focusing on general learning at the expense of practical skills. "It really annoyed apprentices and employers at the time," she says. "We have got to learn from that experience.
"(General education requirements) should not be something bolted on to the programme that students are forced to do.
"They should get a breadth of experience from an apprenticeship, not a general education. Employers need to know that what they are investing in is useful in the workplace."
And adult education body Niace warns that the report's 14-19 remit should not cause the focus to shift away from older learners who want to engage with education.
Principal policy and advocacy officer Alastair Thomson says: "It would be unfortunate if necessary reforms for this cohort of young people were to distort the important and different role that vocational qualifications play for people changing career, seeking labour market mobility or starting a learning journey as an adult.
"Those whose initial schooling failed to instil a habit of lifelong learning are often motivated to return to education through vocationally- orientated courses. However modest a qualification is, it acts as an affirmation of worth and recognition of achievement."
FE professionals must now hope that Mr Gove's response to the Wolf review genuinely recognises the sector's worth, while implementing the wholesale changes needed to allow it to flourish.
Wolf review: Key points
- FE lecturers to be allowed to teach in schools.
- Ministers, not Ofqual, to decide which vocational qualifications count in league tables.
- Work experience should wait until after the age of 16.
- 16 to 19-year-olds without good English and maths GCSEs to be required to remedy this.
- Fixed level of funding per student.
- Subsidies for employers who provide apprenticeships.
- Legal right of colleges to enrol under-16s to be made explicit.
- No requirement for qualifications to comply with the qualifications and credit framework.
- Original headline: Will Wolf's tough talking take FE to the next level?