Suzanne Savage (@teachersavage) of Birmingham City University writes:
While the government and media continue focussing on the growing number of young people entering universities at age 18, there is a notable absence of attention to the two-thirds of 16-18 year olds who attend a further education college in England. And the fate of students not in HE over the age of 19 is largely ignored.
The picture looks bleak. In the last five years, swingeing budget cuts have sliced through FE institutions with minimal protests from policy makers. Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw has branded the whole sector ‘inadequate’ during a parliamentary inquiry – with seemingly little objection raised from within government. In addition, centrally-mandated Area Reviews are unravelling the very fabric of locally-based and locally-responsive further education provision in favour of mega colleges, with remarkably little protest. It seems that FE has very few champions in Westminster or Whitehall.
And yet, despite what I believe is nothing short of an attack on further education, the sector continues to make a real difference in the lives of people who are not attending university. The breadth of learners catered for is awe-inspiring: 14-15 year olds who are not thriving in exam-factory schools find success in pre-vocational training at colleges; 16-18 year olds prepare for a broad range of careers; 19+ learners find their way back to education; adults who have spent their lives hiding their poor reading skills find the courage to improve their literacy; ESOL speakers eagerly learn the language of their new country. This is a small sample of the range of people who are flourishing in further education. And we must also remember that the term “further education” embraces much more than FE colleges; there is a vibrant network of adult education provision, offender learning, third-sector charity work and even private providers who make up this broad sector.
In order to confront the very real challenges facing FE, we organised the Reimagining Further Education conference at Birmingham City University on 29 June, 2016. Aiming to put the “confer” back into “conference”; we brought together sector practitioners, leaders and researchers to actively tackle problems and to formulate creative and practical responses. With the exception of a few keynote speakers, the real work of the conference was done in small working groups organised around specific themes such as Leadership, Professionalism and Accountability. Rather than talking at delegates, we asked delegates to take the lead in developing a vision which will ensure the important work of further education can proactively respond to the challenges it faces.
The response to this conference has been overwhelmingly positive. Delegates were hungry for the chance to make their voices heard and to forge a path forward for further education. We have created a website to collate their responses and to ensure the energy shared that day carries forward and is shared more widely. Please visit reimagineFE.wordpress.com to learn more about the work of the conference and to contribute to and comment on the on-going project.
I continue to be inspired by the hard work and dedication of further education staff to provide continuing opportunities to their learners. Every day they fight against the odds to create a space where lives are transformed. I hope the work of Reimagining Further Education has made a contribution to protecting and nurturing that vital space. Now, more than ever we have an opportunity to reimagine FE, to promote the voices of practitioners and to get FE the recognition it deserves.