A change in ministerial personnel can bring with it new ideas, and this is when innovation can be incubated. But policy volatility can have adverse effects on a sector when the rate of churn is as high as it is in further education, which has seen 32 secretaries of state with responsibility for FE in less than 40 years.
In their latest The FE and Skills System report, researchers from the Policy Consortium question whether further education and skills policymakers and stakeholders are creating the conditions for success or failure. Their conclusion is simple, according to report author Tony Davis: “Respondents are unequivocal about the policy decisions that have failed to create the conditions for success.”
The report concludes that the role of the secretary of state is at the root of much of the policy instability and volatility in the sector. While it identifies 23 key issues that have prevented the creation of conditions for success in the sector, the report stresses: “Underneath all of the root-cause issues so skilfully identified lies a significant common denominator: the unintended consequences of policy volatility.”
Davis adds: “From medicine to engineering, all practical sectors of our society know that adverse symptoms cannot be addressed directly. We can no more fix a brain tumour with paracetamol, or a leaking engine with thicker oil, than we can poor English skills with yet more poetry.”
And it is the English and maths GCSE resit policy that two-thirds of the principals, vice-principals and governors who responded to the study feel has the biggest negative impact on their work.
Respondents were not critical of the aspiration to secure numeracy and literacy skills for all, but of the manner in which the Department for Education attempted to implement change. “Sustainable quality improvement can only be brought about by addressing the underlying, root-cause issues that produce an adverse symptom,” the report states.
The problem with GCSE resits
The first “adverse symptom” is the poor level of achievement of a “recognised pass” (grade C/4 or above) in GCSE English and maths at the end of the school years. The secondary adverse symptom is that the majority of those pupils who fail to gain a recognised pass at age 16, fail again – whether in the school or the FE system. Figures show that only around a third of resits result in a grade 4 or above.
A majority of responses to the Policy Consortium study said that the most important root-cause issue with the resit policy was that the maths and English GCSE programme did not provide a relevant basis for developing learners’ employability skills. “The root-cause issues have not been addressed. Respondents are clear that they have been compounded and exacerbated by the secretary of state’s preferred strategy,” the report sets out.
David Corke, director of policy at the Association of Colleges, says: “This work highlights the fact that the current policy arrangements are not achieving the intended outcomes.” He says that the AoC agrees with the principle that young people need to continue to study English and maths, but appropriate flexibility is needed to solve the issues with the policy.
“Flexibility with exam dates to suit learner and employer needs would be useful, but more importantly we need to utilise the professional judgement of practitioners to select the appropriate qualification for each learner,” he adds.
Another root-cause issue highlighted in the report is Ofsted’s inspection policy for colleges carrying out GCSE English and maths resits. The study says that the relationship between the inspectorate and the FE sector has been undermined by “inappropriate comparisons” with schools, because “poor resit results can have a significant adverse impact on a provider’s inspection grade”.
Some of the college leaders who responded said they had been forced to deny access to courses if applicants did not have a recognised pass grade while at school.
Davis highlights in the report that none of the Ofsted inspectors who responded to the survey chose to answer or comment on questions about GCSE English and maths resits. But an Ofsted spokesperson says maths and English results are just one factor considered during an inspection and will “never be the sole determining factor of an inspection judgement”.
The spokesperson adds: “Maths and English are vital skills and it’s important that learners develop a good standard of both to help them advance in their chosen career. Many learners come to FE providers with gaps in their maths and English knowledge, and most providers do a good job of selecting the right courses and qualifications to help learners fill those gaps.
Ofsted says that its inspectors will expect to see how a FE provider is working to ensure that learners are progressing. Inspectors will take account of all qualifications being used to further learners’ maths and English knowledge, not just GCSEs.
Davis says the publication of the report could be a “watershed moment for the sector”.
“It is time for an end to the cliché of ‘change is the norm’. We want our providers to research, invest, succeed and grow, for the benefit of those they serve now, and those they will serve for years to come. Yo-yo change does not provide the right conditions for this vision,” he adds. “We are all very familiar with the phrase ‘systemic failure’. It is now time to create systemic success.”
A DfE spokesperson says: “Students who leave school with a good grasp of English and maths increase their chances of securing a job or an apprenticeship, or going on to further education, which is why we want people to master those skills and secure good qualifications.
“We will continue to work with the post-16 sector on this challenge and we recently announced a further £48.5 million investment to improve maths teaching for post-16 over the coming five years.”