Thoughts on the New FE Sector

Richard Evans looks ahead to the problems and challenges he and his colleagues will face.

After 1 April, the new further education sector will be established, numbering 550 institutions in all, and comprising colleges of further education, sixth form colleges, tertiary colleges and a number of specialist institutions, including those for agriculture, horticulture, art and design. The institutions will become incorporated and obtain independence from the local authority. The Government has indicated that further education is now top of the agenda for the first time in its long and credible history. Additional resources have now been made available, with the proviso that the sector increases its student fulltime equivalent population by 25 per cent over the next three years. This has been coupled with a 16 per cent increase in resources and will require institutions to make a 3 per cent efficiency gain each year over the next three years.

Some colleges regret the severing of the links from their local education authority (LEAs), as many of the authorities have been very supportive of their FE colleges. However, it is hoped that relationships can still be maintained between the colleges in the new sector and their LEAS. After all, the LEAS are still largely responsible lor the schools, that is assuming that not too many of them opt out!

An effective post-16 system for education and training is essential to this country and it will have an important part to play in tackling some of the fundamental problems we have. For too long the participation rate post-16 in education and training has been woefully low and well below our main competitors. In addition the workforce has been largely unqualified or poorly qualified, and again international comparisons show starkly the mismatch between our levels of qualification and those of our main competitors.

Coupled with independence, and the increased resources, the Government has also announced the National and Education Training Targets (NETTs). These targets are an attempt to improve the level of qualifications held by the workforce. The colleges will be the primary deliverers ot the provision to realise these targets, and hopefully they will be achieved, and exceeded. It is interesting to note that the targets set are already below many of our main competitors. It is important the colleges, along with the schools and adult education sectors, commit themselves to realise the Foundation as well as the Lifelong Targets.

So how can the sector attempt to respond to these Government challenges and what problems will it face? Currently we are still in a very deep depression and there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the future nature of work and the employment profiles of the future. Where will the areas of growth be? The reality seldom acknowledged by politicians is that high structural unemployment is here to stay and this will require a fundamental rethink, at all levels in this country, but especially in education, as to the purpose of education, not only at school but also by FE and HE sectors. Recent international reports would indicate that growth areas of the future will be very much associated in areas of conservation leisure, caring and computer-aided design, manufacturing and graphics. Success in these areas will be just as dependent on craftspeople and technicians as graduates and postgraduates.

Another fact that adds further to the uncertainty is that change will continue at an accelerated rate. The uncertainty increases when one reflects upon the fact that the knowledge half-life of an electrical engineer is just four years, that is, half the knowledge of an electrical engineer becomes redundant after four years, such is the pace of technological advance. Many other disciplines are following this trend. Also, 75 per cent of the technologies that will be used in the year 2000 are yet undiscovered, and those in their early stages have not yet been fully comprehended in terms of their impact on society.

These statements, along with others, vividly show that the colleges within the new sector must adopt far more flexible approaches and make a significant commitment and investment to programmes of study which upskill and retrain the workforce. A flexible, responsive and more highly qualified workforce is essential for this country to compete internationally. Over many decades we have used our limited resources in the wrong areas and have skewed budgets to defence or big science. We have neglected the areas of up-dating the manufacturing industries and neglected key areas such as machine tools. As a result we have been using yesterday’s technologies and are confronted with an almost totally destroyed manufacturing base. It has often been said that it is now five minutes to midnight for this country and we cannot afford to turn down this opportunity to drag the country out of the past and pull it into the future.

However,a whole series of difficulties confront the future of the sector. As always, in this country, particularly in the world of education and training, we are bombarded with the philosophy of short-termism. We are exposed to short-term initiatives and pilots which are not given enough time to prove themselves, or arc not properly evaluated As a result, the world of education and training presents a complex and confused picture, making little sense to users and society in general It is a veritable jungle containing contradictory and paradoxical elements There is an inherited and persisting culture of low regard amongst the population and employers for education and training. This is reinforced by this Government’s obsession with voluntary investment and involvement in education and training. These market force and voluntarist philosophies and approaches do not make it easy for colleges to tackle the opportunities and challenges that they are being given by the Government.

AIM AT THE MIDDLE.

One thing is clear, the new sector must very quickly decide its purpose. It must broadcast this clearly to the outside world. 1 hope that it will aim its energies and resources at the middle ground of education and training. This country desperately needs more higher qualified craftspeople and technicians and the FE sector must not dissipate its energies by academic drift into higher education or shift significantly from vocationalism. For every highly qualified scientist/tech-nologist/designer that any productive and competitive industry needs there have to be four or five highly qualified technicians to support them. Only in this way can good ideas be put into practice through research, development, manufacture, marketing and selling. Colleges must make a positive statement about the importance of vocational qualifications by fully exploiting the potential benefits of the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) and General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ) frameworks. Only in this way will the sector grow, gain credibility, and make its contribution to improving this country’s economic and social health. The programmes of study that they deliver must produce a large poo! of qualified and competent people to cope with all the uncertainties of the future.

One reality that the FE sector has faced over many decades, and no doubt will continue to face, is that it is battling hard against a culture and system which is hostile to vocational education and training This, as has been said above, has led to a low participation rate in post-16 education and training. Vocational qualifications are often seen as second class and have never enjoyed parity of esteem with the supposed “gold standard” of GCE A levels. This country views in low esteem technologists scientists, technicians and craftspeople, valuing people in the so-called professions more, such as finance, the law or medicine. Surely all people within society, and indeed the workforce, must be valued and the contribution that they make recognised. Continued social differentiation only accentuates the image of the class-ridden society that Britain still projects to the world.Class divisions sadly continues to dominate Britain whether in education, politics etc. and all indications are that it is unlikely to change!

Voluntarism, although it will bring about some benefits will also produce all kinds of tensions within the new sector. A whole series of equations become apparent from this market approach, many of which will be difficult to balance or reconcile. A few examples of such equations could be: competion-collaboration, choice-coherence, choice-diversity, supply-need. Incorporated status at first sight invites colleges to take the high ground, to be competitive rather than collaborative. This, combined with willingness to provide a wide choice to students at any one college, risks creating incoherence rather than controlled and planned diversity. As a result, the impulse to supply becomes at odds with planned needs analysis.

Some of the tensions are further exacerbated by some external organisations appearing to achieve greater control over colleges, for example the Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) and the Local Employers Councils (LECs). In some ways this is greater than the LEAS had previously. Examples are in the targeting of Work Related Further Education and European Funds. If this greater control is real, it will seriously weaken the development of effective partner ships with colleges that no doubt TECs/LECs could usefully play Currently, the mismatch can be evidenced in comparing the strategic plans of the TECs/LECs and individual colleges.

Tackling some of the major problems that face this country requires the colleges to place the main focus of their attention on the needs of the potential students and employers. In order for this to succeed, a whole network of partners working together is required to maximise the achievement of the National Education and Training Targets which are required to benefit this country, politically and economically, by the end of this decade. Partnerships within the network have their role to play and they should include TECs/LECs, employers, LEAs, schools, higher education institutions and community groups. It is also essential that the colleges within the new sector establish partnerships with each other. However, I accept that each institution must have its own mission. It must work to its own strengths and capitalise on its character. 1 do not want to see a too sanitised education and training sector. In a partnership model, distinctiveness should operate in a positive way.

The Government needs to establish a long-term policy framework that encourages collaboration and partnerships. It should also consider introducing legislation, which will increase participation in education and training and require employers to make a commitment to training and retraining.

The Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), which will provide most of the money for the new sector, has made a good start, and the recent consultative document on the funding methodologies, is possibly the best document of its kind ever to appear in this country. The proposed financial models are based on sound educational grounds, which acknowledge the support that colleges need to provide for the individual learner at entry, on programme and exit stages. Students will increasingly require individual programmes of study and this entails colleges agreeing individual learning contracts (ILCs) with them. Training credits, currently being introduced for young people and adults, will promote these approaches. The new sector is composed of institutions which have come from very different cultures, but it is important that these historical identities are adapted, so the sector becomes more unified and coherent. Sadly, there is already evidence that many of the associations and groups that served FE, sixth form, tertiary and the specialist colleges are still wishing to maintain their independence within the new sector. This, I would argue, will seriously weaken the sector. It is important that the recently established Association for Colleges (AoC) becomes the main unifying voice tor the colleges within the new sector. Historical, territorial and parochial views must be sidelined and the colleges must subscribe to a minimum number of key organisations that can represent them and send clear anti consistent messages to the policy makers. Evidence would show that the politicians very often exploit the ‘divide and rule’ approach if a whole range of groups and associations representing one supposed sector are active. We are witnessing this currently within the schools sector.

There are a number of key organisations which have a long and credible history of supporting colleges, for example, the Further Education Unit (FEU) in curriculum matters, and the Further Education Staff College (FESC) in the development and training of FE staff. It is essential that these two key organisations continue to offer these services to colleges.

SUMMARY.

1 believe that the new sector can balance some of the equations mentioned above, but it must very rapidly present to the external world a coherent image. Colleges must think fundamentally about the service they wish to offer the students and research their markets very carefully. They should develop effective partnerships and subscribe to a minimum number of key organisations that can represent them in order to present as unified and coherent a sector as possible They must also, collectively with their partners, decide what their main purpose should be. It is important that they aim for the middle ground Each college must have a distinctive character which has its place within the overall purpose of the sector.

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