FE matters too

by Alicia Bowman and Rob Peutrell

In thinking about what matters in education, let’s not forget further education – or the wider world of post-16 and adult education, not all of which goes on in colleges.  Our ‘Cinderella’ status has often been remarked upon.  Overshadowed by schools and universities, our sector has been neglected by policy makers, as well as by those seeking to defend public education.

Since colleges were made independent of the local authorities following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, much has been lost to further education.  Non-vocational programmes were an early casualty, so eroding the notion that learning has a cultural and social value irreducible to economic calculus.  Since colleges were ‘set free’ from local authority control, FE has been a testing-ground for marketisation, short-termism and ‘new managerial’ practices.   The consequence has been the narrowing of provision, policy churn, and systemic uncertainty.  Our salaries lag behind those of school colleagues; zero hour contracts are commonplace in the sector  And FE has been hit by funding cuts beyond those experienced by schools and universities.  Adult funding has been cut by 40% since 2008.  The funding rate at £4,000 for 16 to 18 year olds is 22% less than it is for 11 to 16 year olds, and less than half that of higher education. Not surprising, therefore, that the sector might sometimes appear to wallow in its Cinderella persona.

One reason – perhaps the reason – for the neglect of our sector is that it doesn’t fit the ‘normal’ academic route understood by those whose voices get heard in public debate.  FE students tend to be from less advantaged – working class and ethnic minority – backgrounds. Some 15% have learning difficulties or disabilities. No wonder that FE has been described as education ‘for other people’s children’ – the vocational poor relation.  It is telling that, as Minister for Business, Industry and Skills, Vince Cable’s advisors felt able to recommend the axing of FE colleges in England and Wales because ‘nobody will really notice’.  – at least, nobody who really mattered.

But further and adult education should matter to everyone concerned about educational access, social equality, and ending the discriminatory vocational-academic divide.  It may have been battered, but FE remains a large, diverse sector.  It currently caters for 2.3 million adult students (19+) and over three-quarters of a million 16 to 18 year-olds, with an additional 71,000 16 to18 year-olds undertaking apprenticeships through colleges, and 24,000 14-to-15 year-olds enrolled part-time.  And despite the battering, further education really can make a difference for youngsters who did not excel at school or adults let down by the schooling system, as the Transforming Lives and Communities project led by Vicky Duckworth and Rob Smith is beginning to document.

Angelus Novus

Is it surprising that Walter Benjamin’s account of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, at times seems like a fitting description of our sector? Driven to implement the next ‘big’ idea, whilst the heap of ill-conceived ones grows sky-high behind us, the Angel -its back to the future- has no time to pause and consider what has not worked and why?

For some, Brexit offers new hope for FE colleges.  Investing in skills and training is seen as a precondition of prosperity.  However, how this fares in practice is yet to be seen.  The impact of Brexit on public spending notwithstanding, FE is littered with big ideas that were ill-conceived, sometimes abused, and with quality inadequately overseen.  Franchising provision, Individual Learning Accounts and Train to Gain were the most well-known.  There are already hints that apprenticeships – the new big idea – might also prove to be an ill-considered scramble.  Questions have been raised over: the future of non-apprenticeship vocational learning, the commitment of employers to the apprenticeships project, the quality of much of the apprenticeship offer, and whether the work-based learning will result in genuine sectoral skills rather than meet the specific requirements of particular employers who are being asked to take the lead in setting the standards for a ‘reformed technical education’.  This is not to mention a £200m levy pot reduction forecast by the Treasury in November last year.


The campaign for adequate funding remains key to the future of the sector.  But equally crucial is whether the sector can mobilise its internal resources – its capacity for thinking and creative agency at all levels – to challenge its Cinderella status and re-imagine itself with an assertive sense of purpose.  To that end research matters.

Our experience of post-graduate study persuades us of the crucial relationship between practice and research.  Research is personally challenging but professionally enlivening.  It gives access to insight and evidence and encourages a culture of professional learning that can contest opinion-led policy making.  We are encouraged therefore by FETL’s recommendation that in a rapidly changing landscape, FE sector leaders should encourage research engagement and invest in learning cultures in which research is valued .  Nurturing links between colleges and the HE research community – as well as with other organisations – is one way of developing this engagement.

There are all kinds of questions that should – and are being – asked within our sector.  What role will colleges play in local lifelong learning systems?  What kinds of internal cultures are needed to engage and develop the knowledge and experience of FE teachers and other staff?  What practical steps and changes in ethos are needed to nurture reflective, critically informed professionalism?  How will vocational education prepare students not just for the immediate labour market but for a world of work characterised by rapid technological change and – let’s call it out – systemic inequality?  How will colleges combine their vocational mission with an ethical civic vision that genuinely seeks to nurture democratic capacities?

Let’s start a conversation.  Engaging in research ought to be a fundamental part of teaching and learning in FE, too.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.