Fine words but few new ideas for further education

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

It was a surprise when one of the big new announcements made by a desperate Rishi Sunak at the Conservative Party Conference was a reform of further education. It was less of a surprise that the proposal was hastily conceived and not thought through. Calling a qualification designed for England an Advanced British Standard illustrates the lack of careful planning.

Nevertheless, the speech contained an important admission by the prime minister; those aged 16-19 in our schools and colleges have been seriously short-changed by successive governments and we need to do better.

“our 16 to 19-year-olds spend around a third less time in the classroom than some of our competitors. We must change this.”

The fact that we spend less on this phase of education than almost all comparable countries was hardly a secret. Those in the sector have complained about it for years. Once it has been the subject of a headline speech by a prime minister, however, it might become more difficult to ignore. The promise of 195 extra hours teaching should become a rallying call for leaders in the sector.

Sunak’s aspiration to have a more broadly-based education for young people in this age group is also welcome, if hardly novel. In recent history, serious proposals were put forward in the Tomlinson report almost 20 years ago which proposed that ‘A’ levels and existing vocational qualifications be replaced by a unified Diploma structure. Rather than challenge the dominance of ‘A’ levels, the Labour Government introduced 14-19 Diplomas in 2005 which ran alongside them, failed to gain acceptance and were closed in 2013. In 2016 a report by Lord Sainsbury led to the introduction of ‘T’ levels, designed to replace most other vocational qualifications and again run alongside ‘A’ levels. Sunak now seems to have announced their cessation, despite having recently invested over £1 billion in them.

Apparently ignorant of history, Sunak may have set off another decade of doubt and disruption for students at sixth form level. To quote the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)

“England’s current post-16 education system is a tale of two parts: a well-established, rigorous but narrow A-level route that has seen only minor changes over time; and a vocational sector that has been in an almost permanent state of revolution and reinvention for at least the last 30 years, T levels being the latest big (and still incomplete) change. However well intentioned, this policy churn has its own costs, making it more difficult for schools, young people and employers to understand the value of qualifications and to navigate the system.”

With an odd symmetry the Labour conference also produced a positive intervention on further education from the leader and a disappointing rehash of old ideas from his team.

Starmer made the obvious, but rarely heard point that improving opportunities in further education should not be at the expense of increased participation in higher education.

“I never thought I would hear a modern Conservative Prime Minister say that 50 per cent of our children going to university was a “false dream”. My Dad felt the disrespect of vocational skills all his life. But the solution is not and never will be levelling-down the working-class aspiration to go to university.”

For far too long progressive politicians have let the right disparage increased participation in higher education and set up a false choice between university degrees and technical qualifications. It is true that as a country we need more people with intermediate qualifications such as Higher National Diplomas (HND). We should produce them, however, by raising the aspirations of those who fail to get that far, not holding back those who want to go further.

At the same time, unfortunately, the party seemed set to exhume the ultimate zombie idea – setting up centres of excellence.

“The plan will involve mayors and the combined authorities playing a central role in turning some further education colleges into so-called technical excellence colleges, a new type of institution aimed at providing local areas with specific skills. Local firms could invest in the colleges, helping design courses to match their need.”

I have lost count of how many times, and in how many guises, this idea has been put forward.  We had centres of vocational excellence at the turn of the century, University Technical Colleges (UTCs) a decade later, National Colleges in 2016 and then Institutes of Technology. The ink has hardly dried on the awful idea of elite sixth forms when Labour choose to spin out another version.

What underpins all these ideas is the notion that we can only achieve excellence through exclusion. Only some colleges can become special. Only some students should get degrees. It is a logic that has failed this country for decades and it’s high time it was scrapped.