Reconstructing further education for a post-Coronavirus world

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Sean Vernell on why its time to ditch the old education model

There is a growing awareness that a post-coronavirus and post-George Floyd world cannot be the same as the one that preceded it. However, there is little agreement about what that world will look like. In the Further and Adult education sector (FE), during the lockdown staff have launched themselves into supporting their students and their communities. From creating imaginative online teaching resources and providing one-to-one support to setting up foodbanks and making PPE for their local hospitals — FE staff have been on the frontline. What has emerged throughout this period of intertwining crises is a FE sector that has revealed its collectivist and public role, one rooted in working class communities serving young and old. Competition and the market have been the main drivers of the educational and training needs of our students.
This model was consciously introduced into the sector by college managements focussed on generating profit from teaching institutions, rather than on the educational experience of students. The model has failed to meet the needs of our communities. Pitting college against college to compete for students continues to prevent the sector from reaching its potential to provide fulfilling educational experiences of benefit to students and communities alike. In mid July, Gavin Williamson, Tory education minister, outlined his plans for the future of FE entitled, The Forgotten 50 Percent’. The title refers to the 50 percent of young people who don’t go to university.
The 50 percent might have been forgotten by the government, but certainly not by those who work in the sector. We have been campaigning against cuts for the last decade and more. Neither are the 50 percent forgotten by the students who have had their Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) cut, and certainly not by those students and staff in Adult Education who have seen their funding cut by half in the last decade, with over one million student places axed. It is galling to listen to a Tory minster lecture us about the “forgotten 50 percent” when it was they who slashed funding for the sector every single year in the last ten (with the help of the Lib Dems of course), resulting in the loss of 25,000 teaching posts and a cut in pay of 27 percent.
Williamson’s vision for FE is a return to the past when colleges existed to train young people for the local employer. Gone is any ambition to create real apprenticeships that have education at their heart and lead to wellpaid fulfilling jobs. Instead, his plan, coupled with the prospects of an economic decline the depth of which we can only guess at, suggests a future of insecure jobs and job losses. The pre-requisite for a successful apprenticeship scheme is a fully-funded jobs creation programme, but the government refuses to invest in this.
The money outlined in ‘The Forgotten 50 Percent’ for FE is a drop in the ocean of what is actually needed. Alongside Williamson’s announcements for FE the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, promised to ‘kickstart’ the economy with what is, in effect a free labour for business scheme. From August, the government plans to pay the minimum wage to up to 300,000 people aged 16-24 for six months from August, a massive subsidy for business at the expense of low paid, insecure work for young people. This approach is part of an already well-trodden path, the latest in a long line of cheap labour schemes such as the Youth Opportunities Programme of 1978, the Youth Training Scheme of 1983 and the New Deal programme that began in 1997.
The programmes force young people to work for very low wages as an alternative to life on even lower benefits. The overall effect of the schemes for the rest of our class is that they act to drag down wages generally by filling jobs cheaply that would otherwise have been on a higher rate. History tells us that companies take advantage of the state subsidy for six months then dump young people once employers have to actually pick up the wage bill. The modern Further Education system has gone through four phases. The first from the period of the 1950s through to the 1970s, where colleges were designed to train technical skills to working-class youth to work for local employers. The 1980s’ rise in mass youth unemployment ushered in the second phase – the “comprehensivisation” of FE.
This enabled a far more diverse and broader educational offer that chimed with the greater ambition and creativity of working-class people, whose employment opportunities had decreased as a result of the economic climate of that period. The incorporation of the sector in 1993 marked the third phase. The Conservative government of the day severed the links with the democratically accountable local authorities and introduced the market into the sector. Those who supported this move promised that the change would “raise standards” and “cut the shackles” binding colleges, thus, allowing them to be more “dynamic” and more responsive to the needs of the community. Of course, nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, we saw colleges engaged in cut-throat competition to attract more, revenue-generating students.
Any attempt to foster cooperation between institutions was constantly undermined by pressures to survive and prosper as individualised business units. Far from creating greater opportunities, this resulted in a narrowing of the educational provision and a new narrative developed, which extolled the virtues of vocational education — which in fact wasn’t vocational education, but narrow skills training – over academic education. We are now into the fourth phase, the age of the supergroups. This phase is the logical conclusion of incorporation. Some who consider themselves to be on the liberal and progressive wing of the leaderships in the sector have attempted to argue that the creation of supergroups will halt the competitive nature of the sector. Mergers to create groups would allow a new era of cooperation and planning to take place across colleges.
Predictably, the opposite has happened. The creation of supergroups, recommended by the disastrous Area Reviews of 2015-16, rather than undermining competition has created more aggressive competition within the sector with increasingly large FE groups fighting hard to expand their empires. In London rather than 40 colleges fighting for funding and students we now have five main groups. This includes Newcastle College Group, the largest group in the sector and the pioneer of the fourth phase, which recently acquired Lewisham and Southwark College in London. It also includes Capital City College Group who posted a £9.7 million deficit in income as we went to press, following a Grade 3 ‘Requires Improvement’ report resulting from its first ever Ofsted inspection. The supergroup model clearly does not work at any level, for students, staff or even as a business model. Incorporation and the new supergroups have made colleges more remote from their communities.
The shrinking of the adult education provision within the sector is an example of this. It is one of the great educational scandals of our time. Yet still, the comprehensive educational ideals that originally shaped Further and Adult Education remain at the heart of those who teach in the sector. As the Coronavirus crisis has shown it was these ideals that allowed the sector to rise to the challenges the pandemic brought with it and support students and communities. The untrue accounts of events espoused by successive governments, and shared by college leaderships, have seen governments attempt to blame educators for the failure of young people to find meaningful employment. This has always been nonsense, the lack of jobs resulting from poor government policy within the context of the general anarchy of capitalism.
The government’s appalling performance during this time of general crisis has loosened their grip on social narratives, including on the nature of education. The disaster of coronavirus provides an historic opportunity for us to reset further and adult education. We must start by breaking the shackles that incorporation and merger mania have brought forged. This is why the UCU has produced our alternative plan, an educators’ plan, Reconstructing Further and Adult Education in a post Coronavirus World. We have an opportunity to make real changes that will benefit the ‘Forgotten 50 Percent’ and the rest of society for years to come. Sean Vernell is UCU Further Education Committee Vice-Chair. For a copy of Reconstructing Further and Adult Education go to: fundthefuture.org.uk/files/2020/07/ ucu_reconstructing-fe.pdf