Dick Evans takes time out to examine the role of General Further Education (GFE) colleges and suggest that league tables and inspection criteria often fail to recognise the role and scope of these institutions. Are changes necessary and what might happen if these don’t occur?
General Further Education Colleges (GFEs) have always occupied an important place in the FE sector.
These institutions form part of the FE sector along with others institutions such as sixth form colleges, tertiary colleges and specialist/ mono-technical institutions when managed by the FEFC and now are part of the extended network of providers under the Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs). The sector has always been a diverse one emanating from differing histories, student populations and different missions and visions. Overall the GFEs have been in existence much longer than many of the others except for a number of the mono-techs, very often tracing their beginnings from the Mechanics’ Institutions. They have also been in many ways the only truly comprehensive system of education and training over many years offering second chance opportunities for people of all ages. For example many people who failed their 11 plus went on to the GFEs to take ‘O’ levels or Ordinary National Diploma (ONDs) awards and many progressed on to higher awards such as ‘A’ levels, London external degrees and Higher National Diplomas – a classic example of inclusion and widening participation. I have first hand experience of this having been a 11 plus failure (twice) and 13 -pus failure (once) – Portsmouth College of Technology was the institution that gave me a second chance.
One distinctive feature, which defined and differentiated the average GFE from other providers including universities, was its strong links with employers and its involvement with vocational qualifications and work based learning. Employers have always been their best ally and have supported these colleges by being members of advisory groups and helping colleges to develop curriculum as well as offering access to specialised equipment and other resources. The student populations have always been heterogeneous in nature and many GFEs because of their specialisms have recruited students well beyond their local communities in some cases from national and international markets.
Sadly the significant contributions made by GFEs has never really been recognised by successive governments. After all every one is an expert on schools and most politicians have progressed from school to university and still very few have had real experience of colleges either as former students or staff. Very often politicians who have experienced colleges are often the least helpful to them. One benefit the colleges do not usually enjoy is the support of the constituency MPs as many of the students and staff do not reside in the immediate area and as a result are not potential voters for that MP whereas this is a benefit that schools most certainly enjoy. As a result of this many colleges experience difficulties in establishing effective and supportive help from their local MPs. The FE sector has often been referred to as the Cinderella sector but this is now an over used and weak analogy. The sector has never been fully recognised let alone admitted to the ball and there have been too many false dawns.
ON-GOING FINANCIAL HARDSHIP.
The FE sector over the past decade or so has always lost out to the school and university sectors, promises of extra money have never been realised and when it does appear is short term or carries complex qualifying conditions. Universities are now arguing strongly that their sector is in urgent need of extra money as evidenced by the recent three-day campaign in the Guardian newspaper. Colleges too have experienced financial difficulties for many years and have increased their student numbers by responding to various government initiatives. In many ways they are in more difficulty than universities but the colleges do not receive the same attention as universities – another example of the lack of recognition and understanding of the colleges particularly the GFEs. The strengths and characteristics that define GFEs are now perceived as their weaknesses. They are seen as being too big’, attempting to ‘do everything for everyone’. Their open door policy for recruitment does not fit comfortably with the simplistic regimes of league tables and national benchmarks. A truer assessment of their achievement would be realised if an agreed and consistently applied approach to value added was introduced. The inspection grades awarded to GFEs by FEFC and now Ofsted/ ALI have overall been lower than for the other types of college within the FE sector. GFEs have always attempted to offer access and learning opportunities to people often irrespective of their previous qualifications and argued that it’s the value they can add to these individuals in order for them to cope with life and improve their opportunity to enter employment. The current inspection regimes and use of league tables does not sit easily with or recognise Value added’ or ‘distance travelled’ by the learner, being focussed primarily on such measures as ‘success’ in terms of retention and achievement.
RETHINK THE ROLE.
Following the Learning and Skills Bill and the emerging post 16 agendas being pursed by the government colleges particularly the GFEs, need to fundamentally rethink their role and purpose within the new extended education and training landscape in order to make their contribution to the national learning and training targets. GFEs must now work to their strengths and not continue to attempt to offer everything for everyone. Perhaps the government’s policy is now becoming more manifest by pointing to a more realistic view of what this country can afford! They appear to be responding to the multitude of demands from their various departments by focussing on particular choices in prioritising the wide scale neglect of public services. As the country’s financial position worsens and the government attempts to honour its pledges to the health service and public transport, education will need to fight hard to get its fair share. No doubt in terms of priorities schools will continue to win whilst the post 16 sectors including universities will continue to come out second best. The recent analysis by AoC showed that the promised extra monies to colleges will barely cover the annual increase in inflation and the proposed increase in National Insurance contributions will cause many colleges already struggling to be in greater difficulties.
Therefore in the light of these stark realities the GFEs will need to become more selective in what provision they offer. The emerging policy on Centres of Vocational Excellence (Coves) is another indication of how the government wants institutions to reconfigure their overall provision. The development of Coves is welcome but will raise a number of problems associated with the ethics of choice arising from their geographical location and wider issues associated with equal opportunities. Couple this with the development of specialist schools one can see the education and training providers becoming more segmented and specialist. Sixth form colleges will be expected to become centres of excellence for ‘A’ levels whilst the other colleges will play their role along with other training providers in delivering vocational awards but within a tighter controlling framework. The impending unification of vocational awards points to a much more rigid system in order to manage value for money and improved quality for this important and strategically important activity – only time will tell if this approach will be successful. It raises fundamental ethical issues particularly in terms of choice by the learners and for providers. One possible consequence and danger of this transformation is that GFEs are left with the responsibility to deal with the people who are excluded from the other sectors. This would undermine the real potential of these institutions and it is essential that a national strategy is developed that establishes a fair and open system that works to all the constituent providers’ strengths and recognises their true potential in order to make their respective contributions to the lifelong learning and skills agenda.
GFEs have a major role to play in the development and delivery of high quality vocational education and training at all levels and are not to been seen as the deficit or marginalised sector. If this were to happen it would re-invent the tripartite system at 14 to 19 with all the injustices that produced in the past.
One real problem in GFEs is the issue of staff salaries as since incorporation in 1993 each has had to decide the level of salary paid to their staff. Compared with schools there is now a 14% difference between colleges and schools. The continued and understandable inability of colleges to keep up with other educational sectors is now having a major impact on their ability to recruit and retain staff. Staff are being made redundant in increasing numbers, taking early retirement or moving into schools. A growing skill shortage is now appearing in many colleges, which threatens their ability to respond to the government’s initiatives. In many key areas the age profile of staff is skewed significantly towards the late 50s and this will ultimately further threaten the future viability of certain programmes of study. Colleges like universities have to invest heavily in capital projects and attempt to keep up to date with equipment to continue being involved in expensive vocational programmes and this is becoming more and more difficult. The reality of this country’s financial position must be openly and truthfully articulated by the government and radical policies need to be implemented for many of our national and public services in order to bring about a long-term improvement. For post 16 education and training it is inevitable that a fundamental and long term restructuring will occur with centres of excellence being created and concentrating expensive provision in fewer institutions – after all it’s only what the country can afford. Similar changes will need to be carried out within the university sector and all educational and training will need to establish effective and long term partnerships within a clear and consistent political agenda free from contradiction, paradox and short termism.
All the providers should have a clear purpose, work to their strengths and across the provider spectrum complement each other by offering a comprehensive service that delivers quality, value for money and provision that prepares people for employment and life within the uncertain times ahead. If this does not happen I fear that the future of GFEs looks bleak and their long and worthy achievements will fade into history.