Why Cummings’ ‘weirdos’ are needed in FE, too

There's little debate and variation within FE - we, too, could benefit from more 'cognitive diversity', says Ian Pryce

Ian Pryce

Why Cummings' 'weirdos' are needed in FE, too

The appearance over the Christmas break of a new blog/job advert by the prime minister’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, fuelled a steady, entertaining stream of comment.  Its subject was civil service reform and the need for more “cognitive diversity”. As in his previous blogs, the language was at times terse – “people in SW1 (Westminster)…babbling about gender identity diversity blah blah” – but it was also refreshingly direct.

If this signals a direction of travel for the next five years, should such reform be welcomed by the FE sector? And would colleges benefit from following the same advice?

The proposed reforms include the recruitment of more “data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos”.  They include stopping civil servants from moving around so frequently and instead building up real expertise in an area. They include a much clearer focus on “the public” (the source of the PM’s majority) rather than “stakeholders”.

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FE: a renewed focus on the public?

I suspect few outside of the civil service will disagree that gaining detailed knowledge of your role is a desirable thing. Expertise is domain-specific and there is nothing more infuriating than having to explain things to a never-ending succession of people in speed dating-esque encounters.

Equally, the lack of real expertise means we bear the brunt of too much badly thought-through policy, and civil service mobility does not permit any sort of sustained networking that could counteract that.  My only quibble in this area with the Cummings blog was his use of the terms “world’s best” or “great” universities as the source for the people he wanted. It suggests that he doesn’t have time for some universities, which could be a problem for them, but I suspect graduates from such similarly great places of learning are unlikely to produce the cognitive diversity he seeks?

The focus on the public is also long overdue. When I think of interaction with the Department for Education (DfE) or the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) staff in recent years, I cannot remember a single instance when I was asked the question “And what do your students think of that?” In contrast, the number of times I have been asked about relationships with our LEP or local authorities or employers or schools or colleges or the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) or even Ofsted has steadily increased. 

The recent area review process summed it up. Every imaginable stakeholder was included bar the public. The objective was to ensure college stability – bigger, more resilient institutions. You might argue this is a proxy for a focus on the public but many recommendations clearly undermined that; for example, closing campuses and inconveniencing the public by making them travel further to access further education.

So if it’s good for the civil service, should the sector follow suit? I think there are strong grounds to say we should.

Neglect of subject expertise

The sector does not have a tradition of regularly moving staff around but until a few years ago it would have been a valid criticism of our college to say that we had focused so much on raising the teaching skills of our staff that we had neglected subject expertise, something our students (the public) value extremely highly.  It was the government that told us to get all staff teacher-qualified, not the public.

Could we benefit from more data scientists or project managers? Surely the answer is a big yes. One of my few gripes with the sector is our lack of a true understanding of our public, reflecting a significant long-term underinvestment and undervaluation of the marketing discipline. Having worked previously in retailing, finance, insurance, electricity supply and even local government, I am clear that in every one of those sectors I knew far more about my customers than we do about our students.  It still makes me angry when I ask for information and then am told we don’t collect it because “it isn’t needed for the ILR [individualised learner record]!”

What do the students think?

It is an article of faith in the sector that “we put the learner at the heart of everything we do”, but the evidence is mixed. Even at the most basic level, we know that if you meet a principal for the first time you will find out the college Ofsted grade or how she gets on with neighbouring colleges well before you learn what students think of the college. When I look at my diary (as I did before writing this), it is shocking how much time is devoted to talking with stakeholders compared to spending time around students.

And do we really promote or exhibit cognitive diversity? I attended my 23rd Association of Colleges conference this year. They are always worthwhile but I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard senior leaders fundamentally disagreeing during those two decades. Any panel with numerous principals guarantees unanimous agreement on just about every topic. True debate is rare. This could be a problem, especially as polls during the election showed staff in education hold very uniform political views, and ones at odds with those of the voting public.

On a positive note, though, we remain the part of the education sector that refuses to be pigeon-holed.  Further education finds a place and a home for the late-developers, the iconoclasts, the mavericks, the non-conformists.  If Dominic Cummings truly wants a different sort of civil servant, further education might be just the place to start.

Ian Pryce is chief executive of Bedford College

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