The line in the sand by Jayne Stigger @fossa99

Over the past twenty or so years, the employment landscape has changed dramatically. Jobs that didn’t exist then are now commonplace, new jobs we haven’t even thought of are being developed and the old notion of a ‘job for life’ has thankfully vanished. 

Skills that are in demand must be our focus and even more important, skills that will be in demand in five or ten years must be planned for now. People of all ages need to have access to training to ensure their continued employability and for our economic success. Every change to the focus of FE has moved us further towards business and training and further from academic qualifications. See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2010-to-2015-government-policy-further-education-and-training/2010-to-2015-government-policy-further-education-and-training

FE’s remit on Gov.uk is “The further education (FE) system – the colleges and training providers that teach vocational qualifications and skills – needs to guarantee students high quality teaching and courses to help students into jobs or university and create the skilled workforce employers need.” 

The AoC say:
Further education colleges provide high quality technical and professional education and training for young people, adults and employers. They prepare almost three million students with valuable employability skills, helping to develop their career opportunities.

Sixth form colleges provide high-quality academic education to 16 to 18-year-olds enabling them to progress to university or higher level vocational education.

We are not the same, yet, in FE, many still stick to the same old Gold standard courses such as A levels and GCSE as our headline figures to attract new students. The A levels don’t bring as much funding and nor are they are brief, but they are still the headline figures quoted to attract students. If FE is vocational and business oriented why are we judging each other and selling ourselves to learners based on an antiquated measure? Why are we are still cramming our websites and prospectus documents with ’99.5% A-C A levels’ quotations and the stock images of university type students leaping into the air, brandishing their certificates. Why don’t we advertise our prowess in vocational courses to the same extent? We are either trying to be all things to all people, or we haven’t fully embraced our purpose. 

An FE prospectus looks a bit like a TK Maxx shop. Everything you can cram in is there, and hidden away in every department there are gems of real value but there is too much. We want to be known for our supportive SEND programmes, for our 16-18 achievement, for educating adults, for our HE provision, for our work with employers, for our apprenticeships, for our academic excellence, for our brilliant technology, for our Equality, for our ethnic diversity and for saving so many students who have been badly served in schools. We are rightly proud of our inclusivity. Inclusivity comes at a cost though. Funding issues and curriculum changes mean that we no longer have the capacity to give everyone what they need. Teaching hours are reduced, more learning is independent and online, trips to industry and even basic practical experiences are reduced in some places.

So why aren’t we focussing on our remit?

In 1992, FE voted to support incorporation and become financially independent. This changed the focus of FE from education to business but our mind set is still twenty years old. So why don’t we accept the challenge instead of weaving around it? Why don’t we declare ourselves to be the focus of employment opportunities? Why don’t we focus on developing employment skills through our fabulous vocational programmes and get students the skills they need now, and in the future? Why don’t we let the academic side go to the Sixth Forms and Sixth Form Colleges and focus fully on our remit? Is there still a residual snobbery around vocational education that somehow, we are ‘town’ and not ‘gown’, even within the FE sector itself?

I’m not suggesting for one moment that we start pronking our way across the educational landscape. That type of protectionist attitude is not conducive to good practice, nor is it financially sensible in such restrictive times. FE should be an open and welcoming landscape, not a series of enclaves. My suggestion is that after twenty plus years of independence,  FE recognises that the world has changed and if we wish to be known as centres of excellence, we embrace vocational education wholeheartedly and stop trying to hang onto every possible opportunity before National Colleges and UTC’s take our vocational strands too. It is time to draw a line in the sand, and concentrate on what we do best.

If FE, our economy and our students, are to thrive and not just survive, then this is not just our choice, it is our responsibility.