Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Talk : The Crisis in Post-16 Education

Interesting Cafe Sci talk recently by Alan Barker from the University and College Union (UCU). Alan is a teacher of A-Level Mathematics and is involved in a number of projects to make teaching of this subject as effective as possible (see here and here)

Alan's talk was on "The Crisis in Post-16 Education" and was fascinating. The post below below is based on the talk, with some added bloggage and linkage thrown in....

The talk began by mentioning the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which allowed polytechnics to become universities; removed FE establishments from LEA control; introduced competition for funding and learners between institutions; and allowed institutions to set their own terms and conditions for staff.

An interesting look at the background and effects of these reforms can be found in this paper by Michael Hammond.

Alan commented on how the changed funding regime had resulted in cuts in the number of courses offered, with one head telling Alan that the situation was now so bad that "there is nothing left to cut" except core courses. Pay was also an issue post-1992, with increases being higher for senior managers than for teaching staff. Data on FE pay in 2012 can be found on P19 of this report , which puts medial senior manager pay at ~£62k and teaching staff at ~£29k.

On the other hand, this article in FE Week quotes the UCE saying "as college staff were being offered a measly pay rise of 0.7 per cent in 2012/13, some of the top earning college leaders were enjoying pay rises of more than 30 per cent." and listing salaries well in excess of 100K for many college principals.

Alan commented on a number of occasions on how, far from being more efficient, the current structure of FE has many mismatches between education rhetoric and actual funding. One example being a Darlington college which had a large number of classes for hairdressing, not because of local need, but because that was where the funding was [although a news (article) suggests it was more to do with pushing girls towards hairdressing as an "easy" option}.

There is a government push towards merging FE colleges in large towns and cities (a process that is happening right now in Nottingham), although Alan stated that there was "no evidence base" that larger establishments were more more financially stable and that a similar policy in Scotland had resulted in a significant drop in drop in student numbers. When the plans were announced, the Scottish Government claimed there would be £50million of efficiency savings each year from 2015/16 and that outcomes for students would improve.

But Audit Scotland found that, although there were savings from reducing teaching staff, "total student numbers were now 36 per cent lower than 2008/09, teaching staff had been cut by 9.2 per cent in the last two years alone and budgets were down £69m between 2011/12 and 2015/16".

On the other hand, Alan also commented on the duplication or courses and lack of co-ordination that occurred in the past when there were several FE colleges in the city. Alan described another way of organising FE establishments, one in which local people, local government, staff and students were more involved; where there was a proper education policy and where there was a move away from a very narrow "skills agenda".

Another remarkable story mentioned in the talk was some comments from Vince Cable that, in 2010, Government officials wanted to cut all FE funding, claiming that "no-one will really notice". In then end, the FE budget was cut by 40% - and student fees went up from £3,375 to £9,000 year to compensate.

According to Alan, the direction of travel for government policy had three arms:

Apprenticeships - A-Levels in schools only - No adult provision for education

In short, you get one shot at education, if you miss out, for whatever reason, you are toast. Alan commented on how this was in conflict for a wish for "lifelong learning" and for people to retrain during their careers.

One of the most interesting features of Cafe Sci events is the long Q&A session. Alan's talk was no exception.

One question asked how people could hold local FE providers to account (e.g. relating to finances or student outcomes). Alan's response was there was no way of holding local FE to account. There was no ombudsman, they were not part of local government. In short "you have no control over the education system in your city"

Another person asked whether there were positives in the potential merger of Nottingham FE colleges in terms of offering courses that were not otherwise viable, or more flexible timetables. Alan responded that this was possible and that many educators had some support for the scheme. The questioner also pointed out they had wanted to get some local community organisers onto a course about fuel poverty - something that was desperately relevant to the communities they lived in - but found that the course was £800 (for just three days) - it seemed that there was a failure to look at where the NEEDS were, in favour of looking at where the FUNDING was.

Then, right at the end of the event, there was a remarkable discussion. It centered about the fact that the alumni of FE colleges are invisible, yet we interact with them everyday. But we do not recognise it because the badge on the back of the heating engineers van doesn't say "Central College Nottingham" - it says "Corgi" or "City and Guilds".

The digital designer; the hotel sales executive; the award winning film-maker; the plumber, the famous animator; the Transmission and Asset Manager for National Grid; the award winning fashion designer; the gardener; the IT support technician; the TEDxDerby organiser; the hospital healthcare support workers; the hairdresser; the biomedical scientist, the nurse; the sports coach; the car mechanic and technician - all of them a product of Further Education Colleges.