The Cinderella analogy for FE has never been more apt than during the pandemic, writes Stephen Howlett.

For many years, FE has often been referred to as the 'Cinderella' of our education system and sadly, I feel this description has been more apt than ever over the past few months.

There is absolutely no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought extraordinary and unprecedented challenges to everyone working in education. Young people of all ages have been disproportionately affected, missing out not only on academic work but on the crucial social development that attending school or college helps to build.  

Teachers have had to change the way they teach almost overnight and school and college leaders have been dealing with the impossible job of balancing pupils’ and staff’s needs in a landscape of ever-changing policy and guidance. 

What’s made this all the more difficult is the continued lack of clarity from central government – and in my role as chair of a large education group, I feel that further education has suffered considerably. 

For many years, much has been done to raise the parity of esteem between academic and vocational study. For example, the benefits of apprenticeships have been more widely recognised, with employers and indeed parents seeing the major advantage of an earn-while-you-learn approach.

More young people than ever are achieving university places with BTEC qualifications (or a mix of Btec and A levels) highlighting that the value of practical study has quite rightly increased.  

Yet despite these big strides over the years, much has been lost during the pandemic, with reduced apprenticeship starts and cancellation of many work experience placements, adversely affecting vocational students.

What about us and our students? 

These challenges have been compounded by the fact that FE seemed to be initially overlooked by ministers. As big decisions about schools have been announced during the pandemic, I can see my college colleagues scratching their heads and asking the question: "what about us and our students?" 

The exams debacle is an excellent example of this. With the entire education system waiting desperately for a decision to be made, we finally got the news in early January that the summer GCSE and A-level exams were being cancelled. Important news, of course, for all the young people due to sit these and for the teachers who will now be assessing them – but for 16- to 18-year-old vocational students due to take their exams the very next week, there was radio silence for them and their despairing tutors.  

Whether the education secretary and his team genuinely overlooked these in error or whether they simply chose not to address them, it was a shocking omission, giving the impression that vocational exams somehow matter less. 

After much lobbying from all sides, schools and colleges were eventually given the choice as to whether or not to run the exams. This was and indeed remains a difficult call for leaders, but they are best placed to make local decisions for their own communities – and I was very supportive of our own college’s decision to allow students to sit their exams if they wished to, giving them the opportunity to have their hard work recognised.  

Vocational students have also suffered disproportionately with site closures. Practical courses like engineering, hair and beauty, performing arts and construction are by their very nature hands on. No matter how good a college’s online provision is, it simply doesn’t work for vocational learning in the same way as it can for academic study. Those students needing to access industry placements as part of their study programmes have also really struggled.  

Every young person has suffered in some way throughout the pandemic, but my heart goes out to those students trying to gain practical and technical skills that the country is in desperate need of – yet are unable to get the experience and/or training required.  

Late decisions and flip-flopping of policy 

And this absolutely highlights a huge disconnect: the central role of further education and skills training in the rebuilding of our post-Brexit, post-Covid economy is regularly (and rightly) highlighted by ministers.  

The growth of new industries such as the green economy and the ever-expanding digital technology sector will be reliant on FE to help secure the many skilled employees that will be needed over the coming years. We also need to help reskill and upskill the many older people who may have lost their jobs during the pandemic.  

Yet, despite the obvious importance of colleges within the education ecosystem and the wider economy, the sector has simply not been given the recognition it deserves over this past year.  

Late decisions and flip-flopping of policy have created huge uncertainty for everyone, causing extreme frustration for leaders and staff, who are desperately trying to support students to progress and achieve in these impossible circumstances. 

I am, however, hopeful that the imminent (and long-awaited) White Paper will help provide the clarity, respect and support the sector needs for its longer-term growth and success. But we also need a clear, shorter-term plan to give our hardworking staff and students confidence that they and their career endeavours are much needed and truly valued.

Stephen Howlett is chair of London and South East Education Group. This article first appeared in Tes News on Wednesday 20 January 2021


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