Why we shouldn’t welcome the FE White Paper

The new Skills for Jobs White Paper put colleges at the centre of an underfunded, narrow, skills-based and business-led plan.

TES article by Sean Vernell

Last week, the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, finally launched the government’s FE White Paper. He said it would bring about a revolution” in the sector. It will not, of course, do anything of the sort. Not a revolution – not even progressive reform.

Some college leaders have put on a brave face and welcomed the paper; others have gone further and praised it. They suggest that the White Paper puts FE colleges at the heart of change. But should we really welcome this White Paper? 

Should we embrace a proposal that puts FE colleges at the centre of an underfunded, narrow, skills-based and business-led plan, which simultaneously does nothing to address mass unemployment but does saddle more students with debt for the rest of their lives?

The same White Paper gives more powers to government to intervene. Interventions that, will no doubt, make us look back warmly on the universally despised FE commissioner’s supportive interventions. Many expected that the White Paper would loosen the grip of the market over the sector and introduce more collaborative working among colleges. Alas, they have shown that they cannot break from the ideological belief that competition rather than planning will deliver. It hasn’t, it won’t and can’t.

Being at the centre of this “revolution” is not a reason to be cheerful or excited.   

Williamson’s FE White Paper is not only a missed opportunity but, worse, it has the makings of another disaster for the sector and the communities we serve. It is a throwback to a bygone age of the 1950s and ’60s in which technical colleges, during a period of economic boom, provided real apprenticeships for young people and workers for local employers. We do not live in that world today. 

The White Paper reveals a paucity of ideas and a poverty of thought with a worrying lack of understanding of today’s world.

Skills for Jobs White Paper: where is the funding?

Even on its own terms, the White Paper fails. The key test of whether the proposals are serious or not is how much extra funding the government is prepared to provide for a sector that has seen historically high cuts over the past decade. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, government spending on adult education has been cut by 50 per cent since 2010 and annual attendance has nearly halved to 1.5 million. In 2005, there were 4.4 million adult places. 

The additional funding outlined in the White Paper will not even address these cuts, let alone provide a boost to financing. The government has committed to spend £500 million each year on a National Skills Fund. But this will only reverse around one-fifth of the funding that has been slashed since 2010. 

The White Paper calls for an FE teacher recruitment campaign. That’s great, but who will be attracted to the sector when wages are lower in comparison with any part of the education sector? I am old enough to remember when practitioners would move from schools to work in FE. The money was better and there was more freedom to teach in a way that engaged our students. Toda,y you’ll be hard pushed to find a practitioner who has left school to come to teach in FE – the exodus now is in the opposite direction.

Harnessing the collective power of society

The key argument at the centre of the White Paper is that employers should be made central and have predominance in developing “local skills improvement plans”. Trust is placed in the same employers we have seen spend less and less on training and apprenticeships throughout the decade long period of austerity. 

In the White Paper, a case study is given citing the German Chambers of Commerce as a model of good practice. Indeed, the German government is well in advance of the UK investing in real apprenticeship and training programmes. In Germany, the trade unions play a central role, alongside others, in the development of education and training. These two words, “trade unions”, are not mentioned once in the 73-page White Paper. 

The proposals do not attempt to harness the collective power of society. The pandemic has reminded us of the vital role of the public sector and the life-saving role of solidarity in our communities. We face not only a public health and economic crisis but an environmental one, too. All these participants must be part of envisaging and collaborating on the education “revolution” we need to address these crises.

We have yet another minister who fails to understand the demands and challenges of the moment and the needs of our students and their communities. Our students are not one-dimensional human beings. They have multi-layered ambitions, just like the children of government ministers. Yes, they want decent, well-paid jobs with the training and education to go with them. But they also want and need an education that develops critical thinking and creativity. One that acknowledges the scale of the problems our societies face. One that begins to invest and plan to address these and allows young people and adults to be part of providing the solutions. 

This is the education “revolution” FE must be able to deliver if it is to continue to be relevant to society and our communities. The White Paper does not do this or match up to these expectations. 

We are living through extraordinary and challenging times. In the reconstruction of the post-coronavirus world, FE will be vital. Arundhati Roy explains that, “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine the world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”.

If we are to pass through this portal and establish an FE sector that is truly at the heart of rebuilding and recovery, we need leaders who are not compliant. And, crucially, the leadership of the sector must not pretend that this White Paper matches up to the demands of the future. We all know it doesn’t. Let’s start saying so: we need a real revolution in FE.

Sean Vernell is the UCU’s further education committee vice chair

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