After 13 enjoyable and stimulating years at ColegauCymru and many more working in education, I am standing down – not retiring! – in July; a useful excuse to speculate on what the future might hold for further education in Wales.
Prediction is risky but here goes
Making predictions is risky. The unfortunate computer expert who said in 1996 ‘the internet is a passing fad – it’s the CB radio of the 1990s’; the embarrassed Decca representative who turning down the Beatles in 1962 said ‘we don’t like their sound and guitar music is on the way out’; and going further back the disastrous Mr Euall, head of the US patents’ office, who in 1899 rashly predicted that ‘everything that can be invented has been invented’.
Prediction 1: education divergence from England
I’m on pretty safe ground in my first prediction that Wales’s education and training system will continue to diverge from that in England – the Welsh Assembly not Parliament will direct education policies suited to the Welsh context.
Prediction 2: tight education funding
Sadly I’m also on firm ground in stating that funding will continue to be tight for several years. There’s been much recent publicity that the recession is at an end. George Osborne in his autumn statement said ‘Britain is moving again’. The economic indicators appear good. Inflation stands at 1.9% in June (an unexpected increase from 1.5% in May 2014- its lowest level since October 2009). This of course is the UK Government favoured consumer prices index (CPI) which excludes housing costs such as mortgage interest and council tax – the other measure retail price index (RPI) stands at 2.6%.
Unemployment in Wales has fallen to 6.6% (the same as UK average) and the UK economy grew by 0.8% in last quarter – the 5th consecutive period of increase.
But not everything in garden is rosy. Some pundits say that there are now five UK nations – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales … and London. Four out of every five jobs created in private sector between 2010-12 were in London and one in three 22-30 year olds who leave their home towns in the UK end up living there. And in Wales the economic inactivity rate for those aged 16-64 (this includes unemployed, retired, those on sickness benefit and students) is 24.8% – three percentage points higher than the UK average.
In 2007/08 (just before the recession hit) Welsh Government recurrent funding to FE colleges was £281.3m. In 2014/15 it is around £305m. Had funding been maintained in real terms at 2007/08 levels, college funding in 2014/15 should be £331m – £26m higher than currently allocated.
And we know that costs are rising. Teacher pension contributions are going up from April 2015 by 2.3%. Together with annual increments, staff costs will increase by £8m per year.
Colleges have now to compete with health, housing and roads for capital funding. To do so, they need continually to provide clear evidence of the economic long term benefits of investment in FE.
In response to the tightening of finances, colleges can do three things – cut costs; generate additional income; or do both.
Prediction 3: consideration of tertiary models
Thirdly, the time is surely right for a serious look at expanding tertiary reorganisation post-16. It cannot be right that in many parts of Wales competition between educational institutions perversely restricts rather than increases choice for young people at 16. This is because advice and guidance is focused more on the needs of educational institutions than of students. Many sixth forms are not able to offer the breadth of high quality academic and vocational courses available in a well run tertiary institution. The success of recent tertiary initiatives in South Wales as well as the continued success in those colleges with a tertiary set up provides hard evidence that should focus the minds of politicians and employers.
Importantly, tertiary arrangements are a solution not only for post-16 but also pre-16 learners. 11-16 schools are very successful. They concentrate their best teachers and all their resources on their 11-16 learners. There is no risk of siphoning off resources to expensive sixth forms.
Prediction 4: improving status for vocational education
Fourthly – a more risky prediction but key to the economic success of Wales – the status of vocational learning will steadily improve. Lionel Playfair MP, returning from an industrial exhibition, lamented that ‘France, Prussia, Austria, Belgium and Switzerland possess good systems of industrial education and that the UK doesn’t.’
The word ‘Prussia’ might have given things away. He was speaking about an exhibition held in 1867.
100 years before him Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations published in 1776 had lamented that ‘the greater part of what is taught in schools and universities ‘does not seem proper preparation for that of business’
After many years of government efforts to promote vocational learning, we may have reached a significant turning point. Young people and their parents are beginning to see the long term benefits of vocational learning. An apprenticeship can lead to the development of skills that employers need and, importantly, no student debt.
Germany has been described by Lord Glassman as a vocational economy. My hope is that young people, schools and employers will understand and value the vocational learning route as well as the traditional academic route: – perhaps the annual VQ (vocational qualifications) Day will receive as much press coverage as the August GCSE and A level results!
Prediction 5: new teaching methods
Fifthly, the use of technology is likely radically to change teaching methods. Young people play computer games almost before they can walk. Facebook and Twitter are the means through which people communicate. Inevitably the traditional lecturer role is likely to change. Free online courses such as those provided by the Khan Academy and FutureLearn are already changing the way that people approach learning. Concerns over issues of quality, assessment and who pays will soon be sorted.
Prediction 6: new measures of success
Sixthly, new methods of measuring quality will inevitably emerge. Colleges now have retention and achievement rates of well over 90% – successful completion (multiplying completion by achievement) is now over 80%. As every high jumper knows, it gets increasingly harder as the bar is raised.
Colleges may now increasingly focus on reducing variations between subject areas; measuring progression into further education and training and type of employment; and identifying added value especially within the context of deprivation. The much needed concentration on literacy, numeracy and communication will continue. I still find it amazing that many young people, after 11 years of compulsory education, arrive at college without these basic skills. There will also be a greater focus on fitness (physical literacy) and financial literacy.
Underpinning all these, colleges must have an increasing role in developing the Welsh language and bilingualism beyond the age of 16. If the Welsh language is to be vibrant and dynamic, young people must have access to bilingual and Welsh language teaching beyond the age of 16.
Transformation has seen the number of colleges reduced from 25 in 2009 to 15 in 2014. A major challenge will be for newly configured sector to maintain the significant progress made in the past decade in raising standards. The new freedoms set out in the Further and Higher Education (Governance and Information) Act will lead to new but productive relationships with the Welsh Government.
ColegauCymru itself is changing as it adapts to a new era of FE. The strength of the sector politically has been the ability to work collectively, to compromise where necessary for the benefit of all while having vigorous internal debate in which all views are listened to and respected and to share best practice. Other sectors have not been able to manage this as effectively.
FE: engine of the education system
To conclude, the future of FE in Wales is bright. It is 21 years since incorporation and FE is a mature sector that has come of age. It is the engine of our education system. Indeed, its initials form the centrepiece of the DfES! I’ll be watching from the sidelines as FE continues to deliver energetically and enthusiastically for Wales.