FE: too often forgotten

This blog is as guilty as many in education of too often overlooking the further education sector. Despite its status of something of a poor relation to both higher education and the school sector, further education has an important part to play in developing the economic activity of our nation. One of my regrets about the Coalition government was that it allowed the further education sector to be excluded from the funding deal for schools. That deal may not have been perfect, but it has left schools, and especially those secondary schools without 16-18 provision, relatively much better off than the further education sector. The oft quoted number is that a lecturer in the FE sector earns around £7,000 less than a school teacher when teaching the same age group.

One has to ask, is it rational to be thinking of cutting fees for higher education without also considering the funding of further education, where a portion of higher education work also takes place. I suspect that a significant amount of the work on FE funding assumed that further education could subsidise expensive practical subjects from the assumed cheaper to deliver classroom based education. Such a view is both short-sighted and not, I suspect, based on much in the way of evidence. I guess that when general studies was taught to classes 100 or more day release students, such subsidies were possible: but mostly, I suspect, that was a long time ago.

Teaching English and Mathematics, both classroom based subjects, to those that failed to reach a satisfactory level at school cannot be done in large classes. It also cannot be done properly by those without sufficient knowledge and skills of teaching.  Practical subjects whether construction or hairdressing need both small groups and often expensive equipment. The Treasury doesn’t seem to realise this fact. Government also doesn’t seem to realise that students often have to travel significant distances to attend colleges offering subjects they are interested in learning.

We have already seen a couple of universities flirt with financial issues and there must be a risk as the number of 16-18 year olds reduces for the next couple of years that further education as a sector will experience the same sorts of serious financial problems.

Once the agony of the Brexit saga is finally resolved, one way or another, then British industry and commerce must step in to support the development of the further education sector as a means of creating talent for our wealth generating industries, whether old manufacturing skills or modern IT related skills or those that have yet to be fully understood around the applications of AI across the workplace.

Now is the time to review the economics of the whole 16-18 sector. Schools are able to support small sixth forms, especially where pupil numbers are growing at Key Stage 3. Colleges don’t have this luxury and it is a false economy to under-fund them when we need a more productive and skilled workforce at all levels. Those that don’t go to university are as important in our economy as those that do and much less of a burden on the public purse.  They deserve a better deal.