Secret Lecturer: too many FE policies with too few foundations

Secret Teacher

Secret Lecturer: too many FE policies with too few foundations

I can scarcely remember so many FE policies being in flux at the same time. Continuing doubts about the speed at which T-levels are being introduced. A call to scrap the Institute for Apprenticeships from the House of Lords economic affairs committee. Worries about how compulsory 20% off-the-job training for apprentices is affecting small and medium size businesses. The over-ambitious target of 3m apprenticeship starts by 2020. And let’s not forget the forthcoming devolution of much of the FE adult education budget set against a multi-million pound underspend in 2016-17. The list goes on.


Grand designs drawn up on the hoof

Changes are constantly being called for. Policies often seem to have been drawn up on the hoof and not thought through. In my college, we see it as pure déjà vu – T-levels seen as rehashed, expanded NVQs and apprenticeships starting to resemble the failed Train to Gain initiative that ended in 2010. These ideas have faltered before and we don’t think variations on a theme will succeed.

Sadly, politicians seem incapable of giving FE policies breathing space to work. Contrast the UK with Germany and its much vaunted approach to vocational training: it has changed its vocational education system just twice since the second world war. Yet in Britain in the last three decades – as I may have mentioned before in this column – 28 key pieces of legislation linked to FE have been led by 48 secretaries of state, with four industrial strategies launched since 2008, according to the Institute for Government’s All Change 2017 report. And at what cost.


Lack of policy memory

Of course, the reasons for this are complex: firstly, there’s lack of policy memory in areas where people can’t remember or they are reluctant to go back and examine why things didn’t work in the past. 

Secondly FE, unlike schools, does not have a vociferous natural constituency (middle-class parents) that took on former education secretary Michael Gove when he started tinkering with A-levels. Hence, politicians and officials can more easily play with the sector without anyone noticing, rearrange it at will and, of course, make their mark.

Thirdly, policy makers don’t consider carefully enough at the start of a reform programme what are the essential policy elements. It should be about putting the key building blocks in place rather than just ‘sucking it and seeing’. Politicians seem hell-bent on big policy thinking and much less attracted to the detailed work of implementing policies and adjusting them in the light of experience.


Danger of changing things too fast

At the coal face are hoards of technicians who can enact policy but don’t understand where it’s going. Often it’s a case of starting a policy without sufficient clarity about what the key elements are and then we get into an act-and-react cycle and change things too fast before things can settle in. 

Instead, we need a much more careful approach to creating policy in the first place, work out what the basics are, and then stick with it, although you can still learn from things you have done that don’t quite work. As the Germans do, we need to adjust small elements rather than seek to change the whole shebang. Having the big ideas without the ability to implement them is nonsensical – it’s like intellectual self-gratification.


Brexit obsession gives policies breathing space

But my college does see some sort of silver lining. Because the government lacks a clear majority and is so focused on Brexit, it has little opportunity to push through new legislation and new grand designs so officials have had to buckle down and make the existing policies work.

That’s OK up to a point. But I’m not sure the policy wonks have really worked through what differentiates technical education from other forms of education. There is too much stress on qualifications rather than the substance of what is being taught and how it’s being taught. They have to give more attention to fundamentals.

Maybe the ‘Brexit’ chaos is starting to work in the sector’s favour. At least the government seems to be taking a longer view on the introduction of T-levels … and I detect real consensus around the importance of apprenticeships and their need to grow step by step.


German model is so different to ours

The key is not to overreact just because, say, initially fewer providers than expected have come forward to offer T-levels. It has to be about sticking with it, working out detailed regulations and funding incentives – and not simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

In fact, signs are that officials have been looking at GNVQs and diplomas to learn how to introduce reforms and go back to learn as you go but still keep a sense of evolving policy.

Groundwork takes time and, yes, of course we can learn lessons from Germany – but that’s as far as it goes. Germany has a different-shaped economy to ours, its prevailing social model and thus skills system differ markedly – it relies far more on manufacturing than us, whereas our more market-led economy depends heavily on service industries

We also don’t have same social conventions around international trade unions, businesses and chambers of commerce. And German employers are more consultative, take a longer view, and don’t look for same return on capital as UK employers.


Stick with a policy and adjust – don’t start again

We can learn some things from Germany but should be very selective about what lessons we take on board and how we apply them here. 

One thing Germany can teach us, though, is how to establish basics clearly and firmly, formulate policy and direction of travel, and then stay with it and adjust rather than starting all over again every time.

How can lecturers make their mark? We too are leaders along with our principals and governing bodies. It’s up to us to understand what is behind the implementation of current reforms. Unlike other teachers we have to be both expert and up-to-date practitioners in our own speciality and in teaching. We also have to be aware of the changing needs of employers in our area.


Delivering good professional education is key

We need to fundamentally concentrate on what’s behind policies. We should understand that as well as the detail we hear coming out all the time on topics such as the registration of approved training providers, the endpoint assessment inadequacy, the fact that there is no T-level in sport – all issues that will be solved in time – we need to continually deliver good professional education. 

It’s up to us to remind the government that they should trust us to assess whether a student is safe and able to do what they’ve been trained to do. It’s about how we teach, how we assess, how we license people effectively, and ultimately how we can make our voice heard. 

It’s the government’s job to drive the grand design – the overall framework of where we are going – but, equally, it’s up to the government to listen to people like us who are responsible for delivering it.

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