FE: the failure of data and State-istics to tell the real story

Don't Talk FE down! It does a vital job!

Rob.smithAnother week, another stinging attack on Further Education by the outgoing Head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw.  This time, at the Baker Dearing Conference on 21 July in central London, Sir Michael Wilshaw talked about “an alarming rate of underperformance and failure, especially when we remember that the majority of 16- to 19-year-olds are educated in the FE sector”.

As FE teachers take a welcome and deserved break at the end of another academic year, it must be soul-destroying to hear their efforts decried on the national stage – particularly at a time of such uncertainty when college budgets have been hit and Area Reviews are ‘streamlining’ provision in different parts of the country.

Listening to SMW, we are drawn deeply into the world of statistics, measurable outcomes and performance data. According to this data, it is plain which colleges are doing well and which aren’t. But not only do we need to have serious doubts about the validity of this data and the picture that it presents but we also need to start taking stock of how this regime of performance (in FE’s case closely connected to funding) is interfering with the actual educational experience on offer.

There was another interesting piece of news last week that at first appears to be unrelated. This news was about the financial penalties that have been imposed on hospitals for not hitting targets.  The fines imposed have grown until they are estimated to be around £2.8 billion.

How is this linked to FE and how is it linked to SMW’s criticism?

It’s connected because FE colleges have been enduring penalties like those for more than twenty years. The fact is, FE has a tighter more punitive set of funding arrangements, tightly linked to performance than any other sector of education.

But that’s not all that sets it apart. No, it has also endured more funding cuts since 2010, by a large margin, than any other part of our education system.

And who does this hit most?

We would argue that it hits the most needy.

Small miracles are being achieved every day across our country in Further Education; miracles in which people’s lives are turned around, in which people are discovering that they are able to learn and to harness learning to realise their dreams. These miracles are overseen by dedicated teachers who know that an educational experience is about so much more than assessment and who know that negative experiences of assessment, in many cases not carefully scaffolded or prepared for have to be counteracted before learning can commence.

For some learners, further education is needed because what was on offer the first time round didn’t meet their needs, didn’t get the best out of them, didn’t allow them to shine. We have to remember: if getting 5 GCSEs at A* – C is the key measure of success, then our schooling system isn’t working properly for 42.9% of state school students. This shouldn’t mean that their educational choices are automatically narrowed at the age of 16.  They should if anything be further enriched!  These young people form a large chunk of FE’s student body and they arrive in colleges feeling as though learning isn’t for them, that they aren’t clever, that they aren’t cut out for learning. It has been the job of Further Education providers to meet the challenge of motivating and inspiring students to believe in themselves as learners for decades. It’s just that it often feels to teachers as though this is despite funding constraints and the views of people like SMW rather than because of them.

There is mounting evidence that the transformative potential of further education is damaged by the annualised funding and performance-led cultures. FE funding cuts hit the students and target the institutions that are there to help them.  Further Education is desperately needed: that is not a situation caused by colleges.  And yet colleges are straight-jacketed by a punitive regime of performance-related pay that has been abandoned as counter-productive for hospitals.

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