If universities are the prestigious eldest, and schools the cosseted youngest, then further education (FE) is the unloved middle child of our education system – undervalued and often neglected.
The former business secretary Vince Cable said that when looking for departmental savings in 2014 his civil servants asked him: “Why don’t you just effectively kill off FE? Nobody will really notice.”
One reason why filicide was so attractive to officials is because FE sits awkwardly between the two well-defined and well-understood sectors. Around a third of 16- to 18-year-olds study in FE colleges, with many taking their A-levels there.
And there are actually more full-time students doing undergraduate courses below first-degree level – that principally means foundation degrees – in FE than in higher education institutions.
There are good reasons why FE should go on playing this wide-ranging role. Many teenagers are keen to leave school at 16 and continue their studies in a more adult environment. Meanwhile, through adult and community learning, FE provides a route back into education, unlocking the door to opportunity and social mobility.
The problem is that FE lacks the clear identity that schools and universities enjoy. And it is rarely used by the families of the sorts of people who make decisions about education. Its anonymity makes the sector an easy target for cuts.
In other developed economies there is a well-established and valued vocational route that takes students who have completed their schooling and gives them the best possible training for a variety of workplaces. But there’s a gaping hole in England’s post-school education. According to the OECD, fewer than 10% of the adult population have professional education and training qualifications – this compares to over 15% in the US and Australia and almost 20% in Germany.
Yet there is nothing unusual about the structure of the British economy that accounts for this lack of occupational qualifications. And this is the space for further education.
Many young people take out substantial loans to go away to university for three or four years, only to find themselves in jobs that require skills below degree level. Research for the Gatsby Foundation has found that 20% of technicians in the science, engineering and technology sectors have a full degree when their work actually requires qualifications at level 4 (which they could have acquired through further education). This skills mismatch is costly to both the individual and the state and can result in inefficient practices in the workplace.
At least some of Britain’s productivity problems can be put down to people having the wrong skills for their jobs.
Attempts by successive governments to encourage more vocational provision have failed because they have not addressed a huge funding divide that favours universities at the expense of FE.
The new levy on large businesses to fund apprenticeships, announced by George Osborne in his summer budget, suggests that the government is at last willing to make a concerted policy effort to improve the skills of the workforce. To be effective, the new levy – the details of which will be unveiled in the autumn – should form the basis of a new funding mechanism that supports training above and beyond apprenticeships at level 2. Such a funding mechanism, supported by employers, would give technical and professional education a strong voice in the education system for the first time.
For FE to take advantage of this opportunity, colleges need to build links with local employers and develop teaching practices that combine pedagogical expertise with knowledge of current practice in the workplace.
People with recent industry experience should be encouraged into teaching by removing some of the qualification barriers to becoming a part-time teacher. A scheme similar to Teach First could be established that supports qualified and experienced technicians who want to shift to teaching.
A new funding mechanism should embrace existing well-established qualifications such as higher national diplomas, but should also give scope to accredited higher education institutions, FE colleges and private providers to design and deliver their own qualifications if they can demonstrate sufficient rigour and industry engagement.
The government has at last realised that structural change is necessary if we are to build the highly skilled workforce essential to our economic future. If it grasps this opportunity then FE – for so long the neglected middle child – can at last come of age.
• Scott Kelly was an adviser to John Hayes, the minister for further education, skills and lifelong learning from 2010 to 2012. He is the author of the new report, “Raising productivity by improving higher technical education: Tackling the Level 4 and Level 5 conundrum.”