This time last year, I was sitting around a table with the 11 other new members of the Social Mobility Commission and our chair, Dame Martina Milburn, feeling like a fraud. I’m not a politician, not a captain of industry, not a public figure. I’m a teacher. Hearing our civil service briefing, with the warning not to do anything that might make the front page of the Daily Mail, was deeply surreal and somewhat at odds with the normal feeling of being totally ignored that comes with the territory in education.
One year on, though, and I know exactly why I’m there. It might be odd to go from break duty in Sunderland to the Commons Education Select Committee in Westminster in the space of 24 hours, but it shouldn’t be. We desperately need a dose of first-hand experience in the design of educational policy, and we need to take seriously the deep structural fault lines the commission has spent the last year exploring.
Background: Commission calls for 16-19 student premium
So what are our headlines from that first year?
The state of further education
Well, with all the range of experience on the commission, and all the depth of data we trawled through to come up with our State of the Nation Report 2018-2019, the single most urgent focus we landed on was the state of the FE sector.
There is no doubt that social mobility has flatlined in Britain. And, before anyone draws the conclusion that flatlining is better than nosediving, that is to misunderstand the nature of the data. Looking at social mobility is a way to quantify social justice over the long term. It is not simply about getting kids from council estates to be barristers, laudable as that is. It is about trying to see in the aggregate whether our society is fair, and measuring that fairness by looking at the life chances of people from different backgrounds.
As such, when we look at the data from 2019, we are looking at the life chances of people who largely grew up and were educated before austerity began to bite. When you combine this with what we know about the factors that affect social mobility – poverty, housing, welfare, the psychological damage of adverse childhood experiences, the availability of skilled jobs and the distribution of opportunity to the regions – we can make a pretty solid prediction that things are going to get worse.
And yet, in this general picture, among all of the huge range of factors and possible areas for investment, it is FE that stands out for three reasons.
The gateway to employment
One is that FE is the gateway to employment. It is one of the oddities of our creaking system that GCSE attainment may be the measure used for national benchmarks, but young people have another two years of mandatory training or education after that. Listening to the national discourse on education, you could be forgiven for thinking that once you secure your EBacc at 16 you waltz into employment or university. But, as a former head of sixth form, I know that those two years are in many ways the most crucial of the lot in determining life chances.
Serving the most disadvantaged
A second is that FE colleges disproportionately serve the most disadvantaged. Twice the number of disadvantaged 16- to 18-year-olds are in further education compared to school sixth forms, and this segregation within the education system has risen by 1.2 per cent since 2013.
- The impact of cuts
And the third is very simple, and deeply worrying. For all the fears about the impact of cuts to education funding in general, it is the FE sector that has suffered the most. Per-student funding for 16 to 19-year-olds has fallen 12 per cent since 2011-12 and is now 8 per cent lower than for the 11-16 sector.
The impact of these factors is huge, whether in cuts to student support, lost courses, or a massive increase in the instability of the workforce. Ninety per cent of colleges report difficulty recruiting staff, with the average college having 16 vacancies at the start of the 2017-18 school year, creating volatility for students and impacting on student attainment.
As such, we made some very direct recommendations on equalising FE funding, which we’re pleased seems to be moving up the political agenda, with encouraging noises being made in the September spending review. We’ve also called for pupil premium funding to be extended into a 16 to 19 student premium – because disadvantage doesn’t stop at 16.
But right now, on our first anniversary as a commission, we’re calling for the same attention to be paid to researching what works in FE as has been done so successfully in the rest of the education sector. Our review of the available evidence makes stark reading: while the Education Endowment Foundation includes more than 3,000 studies in its new teaching and learning toolkit, we found only nine that explored interventions in FE in England. That is why we’re asking that government invest £20 million over five years to establish a "What Works Centre" for FE.
For the sake of the young people who right now are struggling to make their mark in the bleakest FE landscape in living memory, we need to find out what works – and fast.
Sammy Wright is the vice-principal of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland.