Respond, Renew, Reform? What next for FE and vocational education in Wales

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As Welsh Government sets out the next phase of its post-Covid planning for education and we anticipate further progress on the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research Bill (CTER), ColegauCymru Chief Executive Iestyn Davies reflects on Mitigating impacts of the Covid19 pandemic on the further education sector, the latest rapid evidence review from the International Public Policy Observatory.

According to the recent IPPO report[1], FE, and more importantly the learners it serves, faces several challenges as it responds to the Covid19 pandemic.

It’s engaging, if sometimes sobering reading, but in truth, it’s not the pandemic itself that has caused a set of inter-related short and long term challenges to both learning and wellbeing outcomes. Instead, the virus has exacerbated existing problems and laid bare some of the many inequalities that predated lockdown.

As the report points out, there is clear evidence in the limited primary research[2] that lockdown and the switch to online delivery of learning impacted the wellbeing of learners. This is particularly the case for younger students, as well as those from more diverse backgrounds. However, poor mental health amongst both higher education students and FE learners has been a growing concern for some time[3] and the impact in this regard of disrupted learning was in many ways anticipated as the least worst option.

Likewise, the diverse cohort of learners studying a form of further education[4] as well as the impact of poverty and social deprivation on learning outcomes at 16 has been a major concern for policy makers across the UK. This was the case for a long before Covid19 appeared.[5]

The Welsh Government response to the effect of Covid19 is laudable and characterised within FE by trust, shared endeavour and collaboration. Significant investment has been made to try to ameliorate the inevitable impact of disruption. However, whilst responding to so many challenges in a positive way, two stubborn factors remain and keep us in the ongoing response phase.

  1. Firstly, with so many young people displaced not only from direct employment but also work experience, we will need to continue to respond to the challenges vocational learners face in completing their technical programmes. Outcomes in lower level, technical completions for the Covid19 years stand in stark contrast to those for general education.
  2. Secondly, before we work to renew, let alone reform, we need a better understanding of how young people transitioned from school into all forms of post-16 education. Early, yet largely anecdotal reports, are concerning and paint a picture of unhelpful competition for learners and transition routes disrupted by predicted grades.

The Renew agenda has been set then both by Covid19 and by the enduring challenges inherent in our education systems.

As we seek to Renew, whilst the resilience of the FE sector in Wales is in stark contrast to that in England, it cannot be taken for granted. The business model is built on a range of income streams over and above the direct grant allocation. Some funding streams look increasingly vulnerable post-pandemic but thankfully not as vulnerable or reliant on overseas income as those in HE. Striking the right balance between allocated funding and commercial revenue will be tricky for some time. There will be a role within FE for debt-based learner-funding but this could well prove to be a barrier to many.

The FE funding allocation is predicated on demographic growth and must now contain an element of funding to address historic challenges such as deprivation and rurality but also the new labour and unpredictable labour demand. It will need to address the impact of disrupted learning ‘upstream of FE’ as well as ‘downstream’. Allocation of funding must account for the reality of life experiences and employment churn and not the idealised notions of a linear progression through stages of education, employment and promotion and on to retirement.

Finally, long-term reform of post-16 education is overdue and must address three key areas to make progress. These are:

  • the reform of higher technical accreditation,
  • developing a single approach to planning of 16-19 provision, and
  • the provision of a diverse lifelong learning offer.

Importantly, reform must be based on a shared understanding of the many purposes of tertiary education and not predicated on just one form of provision. It must look at what’s needed, what works and why.

Reform will be uncomfortable. It will be challenging, and it will undoubtedly alter the relationship between various parts of the existing tertiary system and the organisations within it. It will require a new form of oversight, governance and quality assurance but also on the part of institutions, a desire to adapt, just as our working practices, way of life and other choices have adapted to the pandemic.

As the recent IPPO report points out, Covid19 is and will remain, ‘a wicked problem’. It might well prove the catalyst for FE, as part of a renewed tertiary system, to finally address the inequalities and challenges that existed before March 2020. If Wales is to thrive as a society and as one that truly supports all its citizens, we need to tackle these challenges, the ones that have been around for such a long time as to be classified as endemic in their own right.

 

[1] IPPO (2021) Mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the further education sector https://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/Portals/0/Lot%204%20-%20FE%20-%20090921_LO.pdf?ver=2021-09-09-114634-593 

[2] Mylona and Jenkins (Welsh Government) (2021) Survey of effect of Covid-19 on learners (2020) - Results summary https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/statistics-and-research/2021-03/survey-of-effect-of-covid-19-on-learners-2020-results-summary.pdf

[3] Warwick et al (2008) Supporting mental health and emotional well‐being among younger students in further education, Journal of Further and Higher Education Journal of Further and Higher Education  

Volume 32, 2008 - Issue 1 

[4] Ron Thompson (2009) Social class and participation in further education: evidence from the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 30:1, 29-42

[5] Social Mobility Commission (2017) State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/662744/State_of_the_Nation_2017_-_Social_Mobility_in_Great_Britain.pdf

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