Five current challenges facing Further Education

As well as developing the careers of school-leavers and adults and contributing to the economy, further education (FE) also plays a crucial, but unsung role in our daily lives. As one college chief executive has observed:

“Over the past 25 years, we have quietly gone about our work producing the people that matter most to our communities – those that build our houses, fix our boilers, our computers and our cars, care for our children and our parents, ensure the planes that take us on holiday are safe and look after us when we get to our destination, cook our special meals, entertain us live and on TV, enrich our lives with their art, cut our hair and make us even more beautiful!”

But now the sector is facing key challenges that are likely to change the face of further education in the years ahead.

  1. Policy reforms

According to the Institute for Government (IfG), since the 1980s there have been:

  • 28 major pieces of legislation related to vocational, FE and skills training
  • Six different ministerial departments with overall responsibility for education
  • 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities

The FE sector has proved to be resilient and adaptable to these changes, but many believe this instability has left the sector unfit for purpose.  In 2016, the Sainsbury review of technical education recommended changes to England’s FE system to make it less complex. These were taken up by the government, which introduced a new Post-16 Skills Plan. The reforms will replace thousands of qualifications with fifteen new technical education pathways. The new ‘T-Levels’, in subjects such as construction, childcare and hairdressing, will be rolled out by 2022.

It’s too early to say what effect the reforms will have, but some already have misgivings. A senior civil servant at the Department for Education has advised deferring the start date for T-Levels, while the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner argued the changes would not make up for “years of cuts” to the FE sector.

  1. Funding pressures

The Social Market Foundation reported in 2017 that, since 2010, the adult skills budget in England has fallen in cash terms. “Alongside this reduction, the Institute for Fiscal studies (IFS) has shown that 16–18 education spending has reduced.”

Funding pressures on FE are likely to continue. In August, the Treasury instructed Whitehall departments with non-protected budgets, including FE,  to identify areas of “potential savings”. David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said “The news that the chancellor may be looking for further funding cuts from unprotected departmental budgets is very worrying for colleges. College students and staff have already taken on too much pain from the funding cuts in further education over the last decade.”

The government has announced a review of post-18 education funding, including further education. The review will be supported by an independent panel, led by Philip Augar, and is expected to conclude in early 2019.

  1. New apprenticeships

The apprenticeship levy was introduced on 6 April 2017. It requires all UK employers with a wages bill of over £3 million per year to invest 0.5% of their bill into apprenticeships.

Once they start making payments, employers can access the funds through a Digital Apprenticeship Service (DAS) account that allows them to pay for apprentice training, choose the training provider they want to provide the training, and find apprentices for their vacancies. Initially, this service is only available to those employers paying the levy. However, the government aims to extend access to all employers by 2020.

In May 2018, the Reform think tank published an assessment of the apprenticeship levy’s impact in its first year of operation. The report found that in the six months after the levy was introduced, the number of people starting an apprenticeship was 162,400 – over 40% lower than the same period in the previous year. Concerns about the levy were heightened in May 2018 with official figures revealing a 40% drop in apprentice starts across all industries in February, compared with the previous year. The statistics prompted further calls for reform of the levy. However, the Learning and Work Institute (L&WI) has argued that it is still too soon to judge the new system.

  1. Devolving FE

Central government continues to control FE funding, but local authorities and Combined Authorities are pressing for greater devolution of the adult skills budget. City mayors are also showing interest in bringing more of FE and skills under local control.

At the same time, the FE sectors in, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been experiencing their own challenges:

  • College funding in Wales has remained tight over the last few years, but a 2017 report from Colleges Wales highlighted the economic impact of FE in Wales. It reported a return of £7.90 for every £1 spent, an average annual return on investment of 24%.
  • A report by Viewforth Consulting report estimated that the FE sector generated over £524 million of output in Northern Ireland from college and student off-campus expenditure. A new further education strategy was launched in 2016, but the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly has presented the FE sector with additional uncertainties.
  • Between 2012 and 2014, 25 colleges in Scotland merged to create ten new regional ‘super colleges’ under a Scottish Government programme to make the sector more efficient and ‘responsive to the needs of students and local economies’. According to the Scottish Funding Council, the merger programme cost £72m, but delivered annual savings of more than £52m. However, Audit Scotland’s 2017 review of further education in Scotland found that student numbers at Scotland’s colleges fell to the lowest level for almost a decade. Performance figures on Scotland’s colleges published by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) in February 2018 show that the success rate in almost two-thirds of Scottish colleges has dropped.
  1. The future

It’s clear that funding issues and policy changes will continue to affect FE in the UK. But other challenges are also looming.

The Social Market Foundation has highlighted market developments likely to present competitive threats to the FE sector. These include more employers moving in to provide training traditionally delivered by the FE sector, and the advance of educational technology, encouraging more learners to self-direct.

As for Brexit, the Association of Colleges believes the impact of the UK leaving the European Union may be less in FE than in other areas of national life,  but forecasts that Brexit has the potential to bring big changes to the demand for skills and training.


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Preventing extremism in schools…implementing the strategy

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week, Ofsted published the results of its survey of how well further education and skills providers in England have implemented the government’s ‘Prevent’ duty in the year since it was put in place in the sector. The survey, based on visits to 37 providers and findings from 46 inspections or monitoring visits carried out between November 2015 and May 2016, focused on the following key tests outlined in the Prevent guidance issued on 18 September 2015:

  • Are providers ensuring that external speakers and events are appropriately risk assessed to safeguard learners?
  • Are the partnerships between different agencies effective in identifying and reducing the spread of extremist influences?
  • Are providers assessing the risks that their learners may face, and taking effective action to reduce these risks?
  • Are learners being protected from inappropriate use of the internet and social media?
  • To what extent are staff training and pastoral welfare support contributing to learners’ safety?

What is the Prevent duty?

Updated in 2011 by then Home Secretary Theresa May, Prevent is part of the government’s overall counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. Its key aim is to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, and to work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation. This includes schools and other education and skills providers such as further education colleges. Schools are identified in the strategy as being particularly important in addressing risks, as they “can play a vital role in preparing young people to challenge extremism and the ideology of terrorism and effectively rebut those who are apologists for it”.

Events such as the murder of Lee Rigby and Birmingham’s ‘Trojan horse’ affair have led to further reviews of counter-terrorism work in schools. The 2013 report from the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism stated the intention to introduce even tougher standards from September 2014 to ensure that schools support “fundamental British values”. This was later clarified in official guidance to mean that although “pupils should understand that while different people may hold different views about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, all people living in England are subject to its law”, however “pupils must be encouraged to regard people of all faiths, races and cultures with respect and tolerance”.

Has the strategy worked?

The results of Ofsted’s survey paint a mixed picture of successful implementation across further education and skills providers. While the agency judged that 22 of the 37 providers had implemented Prevent well (with general further education and sixth form colleges the most successful), it concluded that the sector needs to do more to ensure that all learners are protected from the risks of radicalisation and extremism. Highlighting particular concerns over information sharing between partners and the vetting of external speakers coming onto premises, Ofsted stated that, from September of this year, it would “raise further its expectations of providers to implement all aspects of the ‘Prevent’ duty, and evaluate the impact this has on keeping learners safe”.

Evaluation of the strategy’s success in schools is difficult, due to the government’s unwillingness to provide information on how it evaluates this. Anecdotal information from teachers and other key stakeholders, however, indicate the lack of support for its implementation in schools. Teaching unions have reported that their members feel “scared and under pressure” to implement the duty, which has resulted in a surge of the number of people referred to the police by the education sector. There have also been allegations of “inadequate” training provision for teachers, with complex extreme political beliefs reduced to simplistic descriptions involving stereotypes, and that the use of these stereotypes coupled with overreactions has actually led to the creation of more divisions within communities, rendering the strategy counter-productive.

Rejection by teachers

In March, delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference voted overwhelmingly to reject the Prevent strategy, on the basis that it causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”.  They also called on the government to “urgently conduct” an independent review of the strategy with their involvement, arguing that a failure to do so could result in a “hardening perceptions of an illiberal or Islamophobic approach, alienating those whose integration into British society is already fragile”.

At the time, the government responded to the vote with the statement that it made “no apology” for protecting children and young people from the risks of extremism through the strategy, and that it is “playing a key role in identifying children at risk of radicalisation and supporting schools to intervene.” Given that the architect of the refreshed strategy has now moved into Number 10, it seems unlikely that the government will alter their stance.

If you liked this blog, you may like our previous post on the local prevention of terrorism.

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Improving basic skills levels in England

a conference

by Stacey Dingwall

At the end of last month, the OECD published its review of adult skills in England, Building Skills for All. The review was commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) after a 2013 Survey of Adult Skills in 24 OECD countries ranked England at 22nd and 21st in terms of young adults’ (aged 16-24) levels of literacy and numeracy respectively. For all adults (aged 16-65), the country was ranked in 11th position for literacy, and 17th for numeracy.

England’s skills levels reviewed

The latest review produced similar results, estimating that there are around nine million adults of working age in England with low levels of numeracy and/or literacy. This represents more than a quarter of adults aged 16-65 in the country. The lower levels of basic skills among young people are also noted again: while older adults (aged 55-65) in England have basic skills levels broadly similar to their peers in other OECD countries, the same cannot be said for younger adults. As the older generation reaches retirement age, this obviously raises concerns over the skills levels of the current and future workforce.

The findings prompted the OECD to recommend that as universities in England are “failing to develop quite basic skills” among their students, some students would be better suited to enrolling in further, as opposed to higher, education. If universities didn’t allow students to enrol without at least a GCSE C grade in maths, for example, or graduate without achieving a reasonable level of basic skills, the think tank believes that this would allow a rebalancing of the country’s education system, by targeting resources in areas where they are best suited.

Who or what is to blame?

Higher education bodies did not agree with this assessment of the current system, contending that the survey involved too small of a sample of students to support such a large reform. However, research conducted with employers on their experiences of recruiting young people has found evidence of a basic skills issue. Surveys carried out by the CIPD and Education and Training Foundation both heard from employers who were particularly concerned about young employees’ (current and potential) literacy and numeracy skills, as well as their ability to communicate in a professional manner, i.e. not in text speak.

Following the publication of the OECD’s 2013 report, the president of the International Council for Adult Education, Alan Tuckett, blamed England’s poor results on constant changes to the curriculum, arguing that this had distracted attention from adult education. He argued that there needed to be more investment in lifelong learning, highlighting that South Korea had achieved second place in the rankings, following such an investment. The country enacted its second Lifelong Education Act in 2007, defining lifelong learning as including “all types of systemic educational activities other than traditional school education”, including basic adult literacy.

Despite Tuckett’s criticism, the 2015 OECD review concludes that while it is still too early to evaluate the success of the government’s education reforms, including making maths and literacy courses a requirement in most 16-19 education, their objectives are the correct ones. In terms of funding for adults skills and education, however, recent news of a leaked memo suggesting that BIS agencies including the Skills Funding Agency are at risk of abolition due to further budget cuts is a cause for concern. It has already been confirmed that funding for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) is being withdrawn in 2016-17; supposedly as part of the government’s commitment to protecting core adult skills participation budgets in cash terms.

Good practice: the Citizen’s Curriculum

In 2014/15, NIACE developed the Citizen’s Curriculum approach, with the aim of ensuring that everyone is equipped with a core set of skills required for the 21st century:

  • English;
  • maths;
  • English for speakers of other languages (ESOL); and
  • digital, civic, health and financial capabilities.

The approach was piloted in 13 areas, delivered by a range of organisations including local authorities, colleges and charities. This initial phase sought to understand adults’ motivation for learning, as well as ensuring that they are being provided with opportunities for learning that are suited to their particular needs. This co-production aspect of the approach is seen as key to its success. With a particular focus on disadvantaged groups, including the homeless and ex-offenders, the pilots provided insight into what works in engaging disadvantaged learners. For example, the pilot carried out by the homeless charity St. Mungo’s Broadway found that embedding skills such as maths and English within independent living skills was particularly important, and helped to adequately prepare learners for moving on and progressing in life.

Following an impact assessment that saw 92% of participants indicate that they were motivated to progress to further learning opportunities, the second phase of the pilots was launched in October 2015. This will see previous participating organisations returning to build on their work in the previous phase, alongside new pilots testing the approach in different settings, or with different sets of learners.


 

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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other article on STEM skills in the UK.

Careers guidance: ready for the future?

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Image from Flickr user GotCredit, licensed under Creative Commons

By Stacey Dingwall

While there are many areas in which there are indications of recovery since the recession, the scale of youth unemployment is a persistent problem. According to the latest labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on the 14th of October and covering the period July-August 2015, the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds in the UK is currently 14.8%, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 5.4% for all 16-64 year olds who are eligible for work.

The youth (un)employment problem

Recent research has focused on the importance of improving the employability of young people in order to enhance their job prospects. Numerous employer surveys carried out by organisations including the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) have indicated that employers are frequently unimpressed by the ‘work readiness’ of young people who apply for jobs with them. According to the UKCES, this can partly be attributed to the ‘death of the Saturday job’, and diminishing numbers of young people gaining valuable skills and experience for their future careers.

In its recent publications, Careers England has highlighted the important role of careers advice and education in tackling the youth unemployment rate. Their research highlights both the economic benefits of careers guidance, as well as those for the individual, including enhanced social capital.

Careers guidance, it is argued, “can play an important role in providing individuals with access to information and intelligence that is outside of their immediate social network, offsetting some of the disadvantages offered by inequalities in social capital”. Furthermore, it is suggested that those in receipt of careers guidance will be further aided by it as their working life continues, as it enables them to recognise the importance of networking to their career progression.

Good practice: Scotland

Over the summer, the Scottish Government announced a range of measures and initiatives to boost the employability prospects of the country’s young people. Alongside the announcement of over £5 million in funding for local government to help young people prepare for the world of work (as part of the Developing the Young Workforce youth employment strategy) came the promise of £1.5 million to support schools to provide careers advice to pupils from their first year of secondary school.

These announcements form part of the Scottish Government’s push to reduce youth employment in the country by 40% come 2021. Early indicators that this can be achieved look promising: figures released by the ONS in September covering the period May-July 2015 indicated that the youth unemployment rate in Scotland was at its lowest for this quarter since 2008, with the youth employment rate increasing by 25,000 to reach its highest level since the same period in 2005.

A particular careers guidance related programme that has been successful is My World of Work (MyWoW), an online careers service managed by Skills Development Scotland (SDS). A recent evaluation of the service by Education Scotland found that the value of the service is recognised by schools and colleges alike, with many FE support and teaching staff using it effectively and increasingly to engage learners in researching career options and exploring opportunities for further learning.

A key factor of the service is also its delivery online; as young people are used to engaging online, it is important that information is provided to them in their preferred format, as opposed to the traditional face-to-face interview with a careers advisor. Outside of the UK, countries including Finland have started to trial using social media in their delivery of career guidance.

An English ‘postcode lottery’?

In England, where responsibility for career guidance was devolved to schools in 2011, the landscape is currently a bit more fragmented. An evaluation of careers provision in schools and colleges published this year by Cascaid, a provider of careers information and guidance solutions, found that only 8% of schools/colleges have a systematic approach to integrating careers into the wider curriculum, while just over a third have a programme of activities with local universities and colleges.

English career guidance provision has also come under fire from the government: a 2013 inquiry into provision by the Commons Education Committee raised concerns over “the consistency, quality, independence and impartiality of careers guidance now being offered to young people”; and an Ofsted review following the devolution of responsibility to schools made criticisms including that provision was too “narrow” and not sufficiently coordinated so that all pupils were receiving appropriate guidance. Concerns about the inequity of career guidance have also been raised by the Sutton Trust, whose 2014 Advancing Ambitions report suggested that there was a ‘postcode lottery’ of provision in England.

The new Careers and Enterprise Company has been set up this year with £20 million of initial government funding, and it announced in September the nationwide roll-out of a network of Enterprise Advisers. These volunteers from employers will work directly with
school and college leaders to bridge the gap between the worlds of education and employment.

Future provision

Providing evidence to the Education Committee’s inquiry, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove suggested that careers advisors may not be an essential part of future careers guidance provision. Research has also indicated that pupils prefer to speak to someone they know, particularly subject teachers, with regards to their career ambitions. However, Ofsted’s review also found that the teachers in the schools they evaluated had not received sufficient training to provide information to pupils on the full range of options available to them. This is especially true of vocational education and career paths.

Considering the future of careers work in England, careers education and guidance consultant David Andrews proposes an option that could solve the problems raised above: schools employing resident careers development advisors with the responsibility of providing face-to-face guidance and working with teachers to deliver focused careers education programmes. Presumably this would include building links with local colleges and employers, something that has been identified as vital to increasing the youth employment rate, yet an area in which efforts have also been found to be lacking: per Ofsted, links between careers education and local employment opportunities in England remain “weak”.

Andrews also recommends the provision of an ‘all-age’ careers service in England. What is clear is that the careers education of the future must aspire to joined-up provision, involving clear communication between all parties. The provision of quality careers guidance is essential for not only the individual’s outcomes, but for the economy/society as a whole.


 

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