18 November 2005
Further education has been a 'forgotten middle child'. But now Sir Andrew Foster's wide-ranging review could give the £5bn sector a new mission – to get the nation ready for work. Joseph McHugh asks him whether the government will be prepared to act
It's not often that blandishments such as 'comprehensive', 'perceptive' and 'considered' are associated with government reviews, but these were some of the kind words that greeted Sir Andrew Foster's review of further education, released this week.
Foster, who was controller of the Audit Commission until 2003, was asked in autumn last year by then education secretary Charles Clarke to answer the question: what are FE colleges for? More specifically, what the sector's role should be in the future, and what structures and capacity needed to be developed to meet the demands of that role.
The man known for his forthright style has taken the government at its word and is arguing for a fundamental overhaul of how the 389 English colleges, receiving funding of almost £5bn a year, should operate.
There is noticeable excitement among the movers and shakers in the FE world at his conclusions, revealed in the warm words that marked their arrival when he outlined them at the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Birmingham on November 15.
The big question, of course, is whether Education Secretary Ruth Kelly will act on them. Memories of Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into 14–19 education, published in February, are still fresh, and the decision to toss his report unceremoniously in the bin provoked widespread dismay in education.
Foster, for his part, does a nice line in insouciance. During an interview with Public Finance on the eve of his report's publication, he adopts a breezy tone.
'All you can do is work with the people in the sector to understand the issues, work with the government to understand their issues and then bring forward an honest piece of work which reflects your best view,' he says. 'You have to work out a position which is somewhere between what you think is possible, alongside what is desirable.'
What is desirable, Foster has concluded, is for the FE sector to adopt, as its mission, improving the employability of the nation and providing economically valuable skills to individuals.
He says the 'galaxy of bodies' responsible for regulating and overseeing the sector should be drastically reduced, and the money saved should be redirected from bureaucracy towards colleges. The 'woeful' information and data systems used by the Department for Education and Skills need to be radically improved to allow for proper measurement of value for money in the sector.
Foster also wants a much tougher stance on failing colleges, opening them up to takeover by other colleges, the private or voluntary sector, or in the worst cases even closure, if they do not improve within a year.
At the same time, learners' experiences, measured through annual surveys and other research, should be forced by statute to the forefront of colleges' strategic plans, he says. Much closer relationships should be forged between colleges and employers to ensure that institutions are providing the skills that industry needs.
Foster also wants an urgent action plan from the department to tackle long-standing staffing problems, in particular the use of short-term contracts, skill shortages in a range of areas, and salaries that lag behind those in schools and universities.
Until these reforms have been achieved, Foster does not believe there is a legitimate case for more funding for the sector. So, all in all, he is serving up a pretty devastating critique of government policy – or more accurately the lack of it – on further education over the past eight years, which probably explains why it has been embraced so enthusiastically by the sector.
There is a sense of relief and – whisper it – a feeling of optimism that ministers will finally offer some attention to what Foster describes as the 'forgotten middle child of the educational family'.
Even his call for an uncompromising focus on job-related training, which might have been expected to ruffle a few feathers, dispensing as it does with the admittedly rather quaint notion of learning for its own sake, has been widely endorsed.
Until now, FE colleges have had three purposes: vocational skills training, academic teaching and the provision of leisure courses. But Foster says a sharpened focus on job-related training is the bottom-line conclusion of his review, and vital if the UK is to compete in the global economy.
A parallel Treasury-commissioned review, being conducted by National Employment Panel chair Sandy Leitch, is intended to identify the UK's future skills needs and will report back next spring.
'As a country we are falling behind on skills against many other European countries, and particularly India and China. They are turning out masses of dedicated and committed graduate-level people,' Foster says.
'FE colleges are extremely well placed to make a major contribution and that should be their main purpose. That doesn't mean they shouldn't do other things, but that should be their paramount purpose.'
The 100 sixth form colleges, which primarily teach academic qualifications such as A and AS levels, should continue to do so and be treated as a 'separate brand' within the FE system, he says.
But for the rest, the new mission should be preparing the nation for work. With 3 million students in the sector as a whole, Foster argues that FE colleges could prove to be a 'sleeping giant' in this respect.
Unsurprisingly, it is a call that has won swift backing from the CBI. Its deputy general secretary, John Cridland, says Foster's review is a 'golden opportunity' to improve the skills base of the workforce. 'Skills are a passport to prosperity so it is essential that any decisions which can improve training are taken, however uncomfortable. It is up to the government not to duck the hard decisions which need to be made.'
John Brennan, chief executive of representative body the Association of Colleges, is also supportive. He rejects the suggestion that such a shift in emphasis could herald a return to the days when some young people were pushed academically while others learned woodwork or sewing and little else.
He told PF: 'A broad-based learning programme needs to be offered to all young people up to the age of 18, but an academic diet is not appropriate for everyone. Using vocational training as a way of re-engaging these young people is something we fully support.'
Brennan adds that 'channelling young people aged 14 or 16 in a particular direction to the exclusion of everything else' is not something his members would countenance. But he does not see Foster's recommendation in those terms. Instead it is a way to woo the 200,000 16–18 year-olds who are not in work, education or training back into the system.
Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College in south London, endorses that view. Her college has 5,000 14–19 year-olds and 11,000 adults on the roll and offers a range of programmes with a strongly vocational bent. It teaches everything from engineering to beauty studies, and was even chosen by TV chef Jamie Oliver to train the catering apprentices at his restaurant Fifteen.
Silver says she is 'very comfortable' with Foster's emphasis on vocational education and argues that it mirrors the good practice developing on the ground.
'Further education is moving from widening participation in education to widening participation in economic life. We don't just teach students a qualification, we teach them to become a worker and to take part in economic life.'
But she warns that, as ever, meeting these broader aims requires investment and she supports the plan for generating the necessary funds.
Foster's report says these should be found through a bonfire of the quangos. He endorses the merger of the Adult Learning Inspectorate with Ofsted to create a single inspectorate, and calls for the standards unit within the DfES, which has a quality assurance role in relation to FE, to be disbanded.
The savings generated should be given directly to colleges. He also wants the Learning and Skills Council, which nationally provides funding and at a local level commissions training services from colleges, to be substantially slimmed down and to take a more light-touch approach. The LSC's plans to reduce its headcount from 4,700 to 3,400, announced a fortnight ago, are a step in the right direction, according to Foster. Clearly he expects it to go much further.
'This is a battlefield from which some dead bodies have not been removed. In other words, there are organisations where the purpose has changed and yet they've stayed,' he says.
These 'rather dysfunctional, somewhat ramshackle' bureaucratic systems are further hampered by information and data systems that are 'very underdeveloped', a failing he lays at the door of the DfES.
The result is that it is nigh on impossible to make any informed assessments of value for money in the sector and, consequently, until these failings are put right Foster doesn't accept the case for extra funding.
'How can I prudently, properly, report to government to put more money into something where you've got really quite a lot of duplication and waste?' he asks.
The AoC puts the existing bureaucratic and inspection costs to colleges at around £0.5bn a year. If the money stayed in their budgets it would go some way towards addressing the longstanding grievance over the 13% per pupil funding gap between colleges and schools.
Silver argues that would be a much wiser use of the available resources. 'Money being re-engineered towards us would make a real difference,' she says. 'Where quality really improves is in our own homes. The money to buy the space for good teachers to work with other less good teachers in their own college would be an absolute gift.'
Make no mistake, though, Foster is not pushing for an end to regulation. He wants a medium-term shift towards greater self-assessment and peer review, but backed up by much tougher sanctions against those colleges that can't or won't improve.
He wants these recalcitrants to undergo a 'contestability review', conducted by their local LSC, if 12 months after external intervention they still haven't turned themselves around.
'This would allow other colleges to run their services, the private sector to bid to run them, or the voluntary sector to run them, or for the college to be closed and the resources put elsewhere.'
Closure, Foster admits, would be an option only where there was an alternative service provider to step in. Even so, if the suggestion is adopted it will mark the extension of the government's market-led reforms to yet another corner of the public sector.
John Brennan says the AoC's members are not unduly concerned by the proposal. He argues that there is already contestability in the system, because colleges compete with other training providers for students. 'Provided there's a level playing field in terms of the requirements on bidders, we wouldn't see that as an issue of principle that we would object to,' he says.
Unsurprisingly, lecturers' union Natfhe is not so keen on this particular recommendation, although in broad terms it, too, endorses the Foster reforms.
Dan Taubman, its national FE policy officer, says he is concerned that it could turn into a cost-cutting exercise. 'Contestability all too often ends up being about price, which drives down standards. We don't want our members to suffer as a result.'
The one thing all parties agree on, though, is that staff in FE colleges currently get a raw deal.
Foster is urging the DfES to undertake a 'major workforce development plan' over the next 12 months, and expresses surprise that one does not already exist.
'Some of the fundamental building blocks of the system are shaky, and one of them relates to the workforce,' he says. 'There are 280,000 staff [in the sector] yet there is no good workforce plan. It's a casualised workforce, an ageing workforce, and if the country needs certain sorts of skills over the next 20 years, you must have the teachers who have those skills to teach them.'
Alongside these problems is the long-standing issue of pay. It came to the fore on November 16, when college lecturers staged a one-day strike to coincide with Ruth Kelly's speech to the AoC conference. Natfhe claims the pay gap between FE college lecturers and teachers is now running at 10%, and says the 2.8% pay offer for 2005/06, which they have rejected, will exacerbate the situation.
'We're looking for a resolution of the funding and pay differentials with schools because otherwise it drives a coach and horses through the proposals. You won't get the quality of staff you need to do it,' Taubman warns.
'You can earn more as a plumber or a brickie than you can teaching any of these things, and as a nation we can't afford that.'
There is agreement on that point at least from the employers' side. George Bright, principal of Wiltshire College and a member of the Foster review's advisory board, argues that colleges' staffing requirements are such that a resolution to the pay issue must be found.
'We're trying to attract people from a range of vocational professions who are also teacher qualified. That is asking for a qualification in two professions and that should attract a premium,' he explains. 'If we want a high-quality system we need high-calibre staff.'
That also means a move away from short-term contracts – which many colleges have employed as a means of stretching meagre staffing budgets that bit further – towards more permanent staff.
The ability to tempt in new recruits from outside the FE sector, such as experts from business on fixed-term contracts, will also be key, says Bright.
But the sector is well aware that it will take more than a workforce plan to tempt industry high-flyers out of the boardroom and into the classroom, for however brief a stint, which is why they are so eagerly awaiting the government's response to the review.
Bright is typical when he says that Foster has done his part. 'I'm confident that Andrew Foster has done everything possible to ensure that his recommendations will be accepted, supported and implemented.'
Now the question on everyone's lips is: will Ruth Kelly and the mandarins at the DfES do theirs?