Further Education at the Heart of a New Vision for Education, Skills and Employment

14th January 2016

The publication of the PPIW report Fostering High Quality Vocational Further Education in Wales provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the huge change that the FE sector in Wales has been through over recent years, and also to consider the role and purpose of high quality vocational education as part of the education and skills landscape.

When I went to school, a middle class mixed comprehensive in Cardiff, FE was pretty far from my radar. It was somewhere that you went if you a) lived in town b) didn’t get on particularly well with school, or c) you wanted to gain new or ‘top up’ qualifications in the evenings. I was firmly on the conveyor belt of a conventional academic schooling route that inevitably led to university, inevitable at least before the introduction of the high fees.

Much would seem to have changed since then. We constantly hear from across the political spectrum of the need to achieve parity of esteem between vocational and academic. However, we know from statistics included in this report as well as research elsewhere that vocational programmes, particularly for those wishing (or needing) to study part time, are less well funded and remain poorly understood by teachers, students and employers. It could scarcely have been put more clearly than by Professor Alison Wolf when she said:

“As schooling goes on longer and longer in developed countries, the part of the education which interfaces directly with the labour market, and which is tasked with developing skills of immediate and measurable economic value has also changed. Increasingly, it involved ‘adults’ people aged 19 or more.

In England, regrettably, the 19+ education system is rarely discussed as an entity, or an interlocking system, even in the context of labour market demand for skills. Debates over HE take place as though FE and adult training did not exist: the reverse also happens, albeit less often.”

While referring directly to England, the same could be said of Wales. We have not paid enough attention to the role and purpose of vocational education, of what success looks like, and how to develop a ‘skills ecosystem’ that meets the needs of learners, employers, our local communities and our economy and society as a whole.

So this report is a welcome pause for thought. Drawing on international evidence, it outlines some of the key founding principles on which we should build a high quality vocational education offer as part of a broader education, skills and employment ‘ecosystem’. It is right to highlight the need for high connectivity between colleges and employers, but also with HE, work based learning, adult skills and learners themselves. It very helpfully emphasises the crucial need to more systematically plan (and fund) quality initial training and continuous professional development for staff working in vocational education (and not just teachers) – something that has been given scant consideration in recent years. It makes practical suggestions for where we need to dig a little deeper- to ensure schools and colleges are working together and not duplicating effort, putting the needs of learners (and employers) ahead of institutional bottom lines. It also flags the need for more research into vocational education.

So what has really changed over the past ten years that I’ve been working in post-compulsory education and training? The first thing is that I have seen first-hand the transformative nature of FE when it’s at its best. I’ve lost count of the number of inspirational learners, tutors and teachers who have changed their lives, or changed lives through FE.

However, I wonder whether the perception of FE has changed much for those young people in my old comprehensive school? Is a vocational route in FE actively considered as a high quality education with a decent economic and social return, or does it still exist for ‘others’ who perhaps had a less positive experience of their initial school education, for those who want to retrain, or those seeking additional or ‘top up’ qualifications (usually studying part time)? And if so, is this such a bad thing?

In reading this report, and writing this short blog, I am stuck by the fact there remain many unanswered questions when it comes to the role of FE in Wales’ education landscape. What I do know is that this is a debate we urgently need to have if we are to address the “invisibility of FE” that Alison Wolf highlighted. Moreover we need a clearer strategic direction for education, skills and employment together, one that cuts across all (or most) Government departments: This must be a priority for the new Welsh Government after the May 2016 elections.

 

This blog first appeared on the Public Policy Institute for Wales blog