Secret Lecturer: We need to curb the power of the policy wonks

Secret Teacher

Shock, confusion and downright anger were just some of the reactions from myself and colleagues left choking on hearing we’d been given just five days – and over half-term week when we were closed – to send in our views on the latest T-level consultation paper on content.  

The institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) wanted ideas to use in its first three Pathways (digital, childcare/education and construction). Reaction to the timetable was so fierce that the IfA had little option but to extend it by four working days until June 10, but it plainly shows the total lack of respect for the FE sector that permeates government policy. 

If T-levels are to succeed, you want people passionate about them and getting out there to ‘sell’ them – hardly likely if they are made to feel their contribution is not being respected and that the government is just going through the motions. 

Why the secrecy over apprenticeship routes?

There’s more. Why is there such complete secrecy about why some pathway routes are for apprenticeships only. Policy makers have refused point blank to say why, even turning down freedom of information requests. “We’re not going to tell you why we’ve made these decisions behind closed doors,” they say. “And we won’t reveal the people we have consulted with.”

Forcing thousands and thousands of post-16 teenagers to take GCSE English and maths resits is a living example of a ‘we know best’ policy gone badly wrong. Just don’t do it, the government was told, it will reinforce failure; it makes much more sense to focus on making functional skills work. But oh no, they say, we know better, we’re ministers. Which makes it hard for institutional mangers to get any sort of enthusiasm for what they are supposed to be doing. 

Why only one awarding body?

The same can be said of attempts to cut awarding organisations out of the picture, based on the notion that T-levels require only one awarding body. When that was suggested for A-levels, the Commons select committee rubbished the idea and the policy makers dropped it. The same applies to FE yet this time they are not backing off.

So what can colleges do to raise their status? Firstly, they should not be so ready and flexible to welcome everything the government throws at them. University vice-chancellors and school leaders are often highly critical of the government, whereas the FE sector is like one of those old sheepdogs that has been beaten by its master yet pathetically comes back begging for crumbs. Colleges seem to believe if we are responsive and flexible enough, if we flaggelate ourselves, the government will recognise our true worth – but it won’t. Let a bully hit you, and they’ll carry on; it’s been happening to FE and adult education for years. We’ve been far more receptive to change than universities and schools, and look where it’s got us? Absolutely nowhere.

Why no organised endpoint assessment?

Apprentices are being meted out the same treatment; selling and launching apprenticeships with no endpoint assessment organisation in place is like schools starting students on A-level courses but saying they’re not sure an exam board will be available to assess them two years down the track. It seems inconceivable yet that is what apprentices are facing. Where are the dissenting voices? Okay, it’s good that the government is sticking to its 20% off-the-job training rule for apprentices. But that approach is more exception than rule. 

Secondly, colleges have to exploit the often huge support and loyalty they generate locally – something they’ll never get in Whitehall. Colleges like mine have to encourage the devolution agenda. The sector generally tends to be a bit negative about devolution when they see town halls regaining control and then interfering. But I’d look for support from our local town hall any day rather than Whitehall. People will fight for save their local A&E unit or a school threatened with closure. Giving up some autonomy is surely a price worth paying for vocal community support and the feeling that we are Manchester’s college or Exeter’s college. 

Ginger group needed to show FE’s true worth

We need a ginger group to provide a radical voice to quickly bring government policy makers down to earth, to make them realise they just cant take FE sector flexibility as read any more while they continue to devise policy in ivory towers.  

The Collab group of colleges, originally the 157 group, did start out like that. It was based on the Foster report’s plea for key college principals to take a lead in speaking up for the sector, setting an agenda for change. They did that for a while but now the renamed Collab group has rather lost sight of that remit. The pressure of competition between colleges, the constant search for adequate funding, has in part forced their hand to work more in the interests of their own members than for the sector as a whole.

Writing bids take up precious management time

Just look at the bidding wars colleges are expected to enter to gain more funding. Aside from competition among colleges for apprenticeship training and a share of levy funding from potential employer clients, the government has put up a £170m pot to be distributed to winning college consortia bidding to run Institutes of Technology – and colleges have to share any funds they do receive with the consortia’s university members.

Now, again, colleges also being asked to bid to run some 20 post-16 maths centres of excellence for those with prior low attainment in maths – it’s throwing even more money at that failed policy of maths resits. For relatively small amounts of funding, colleges have to divert senior staff from their everyday jobs to spend considerable time drafting bids that have no guarantee of success. 

I remember when the 14-19 diplomas were being rolled out; a local headteacher asked me did I think they would really take off? I said I wasn’t sure. The head felt the same, saying he’d just sit and wait to see if others made a success of them, and then only if they did would he offer T-levels. 

There’s a similar worry over T-levels – if people just sit and wait until they have to, the new qualifications will never achieve the critical mass needed for them to establish their place in the market. That’s why it’s so important to fire people up now and encourage them to have a voice rather than put them off by appearing to take no notice of their contribution. We need that extra radical voice.

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