The English education system: will reform tackle inequality?
Dods Monitoring's Aaron Revel examines the Level 3 Review and the Future of Further Education in England.
The funding landscape
Major education funding announcements, in would seem, are like buses. You wait for what seems like an eternity before a multitude present themselves. The eye catching three-year settlement outlined at last week’s spending round responds to wide scale public disquiet over school funding levels and the demands for a long-term strategy from the Education Committee. However, whilst the incremental £7.1bn increase in school funding represents a “major shift in Government policy” (National Education Union), the £400m (£190m in core funding) one-year uplift for further education (FE) is comparatively modest.
The impecunious position of both 16-19 and adult education has been well documented. In this academic year, funding per young person in FE will be at about the same level as in 2006/07, only 10 per cent higher than thirty years earlier (Institute for Fiscal Studies). Similarly, allocations for adult FE and skills in England fell by 8 per cent in cash terms between 2010 and 2015, with the non-apprenticeship part of the Adult Skills Budget contracting by a further 3.9 percent since (House of Commons Library). Whilst the Spending Round delivered a faster funding rise for 16-19 education than for schools, per pupil funding in 2020/21 will remain 12 per cent lower than in 2010 (Education Policy Institute). Meanwhile, adult education was conspicuously absent from the Chancellor’s speech, despite reports that adult participation in learning and training has fallen to a record low.
The Level 3 Review
However, ongoing Government reforms have undertaken to simultaneously remediate the deprioritisation of FE and the disparity of esteem between academic and technical qualifications. The current Level 3 review seeks to underpin the development of a streamlined, simplified and ambitious technical qualifications system, with T-levels as the centrepiece. This also aims to understand how students leaving education before level 3 can be provided with opportunities for re-engagement with education and training at a later point. The T-level action plan reaffirms this ambition, pledging to adapt the qualification to meet the needs of adult learners seeking to upskill.
The review corresponds with the Government’s broader ambition to locate employer needs at the heart of the educational offer. Reforms to Higher Technical Qualifications seek to provide progression routes for those achieving T-levels, whilst offering opportunities for those looking to retrain. The partial devolution of the Adult Education Budget could enable provision to be further shaped by the needs of the local economies, whilst the National Retraining Scheme avows to “help develop the skills employers say they’ll need”.
Whilst manufacturers have particularly welcomed the potential for enhanced technical education to underpin their embracement of the fourth industrial revolution, unions and providers have cautioned the Government against taking an increasingly instrumentalist approach to FE. The Association of Colleges response to the Level 3 consultation is emblematic; “qualifications cannot always aim to ‘lead directly to a clearly defined outcome’ […] young people in particular change their minds about progression routes and intended occupations”. Concerns have also been raised that T-levels will be too occupationally specific to account for the career changes experienced during working life and are overly reliant on industry placements not available in every locality.
The Future for FE
Whatever the outcome of the Level 3 review, the Government will be under pressure for the sustainable financing of proposed changes.
Augar recommended a minimum of £1bn capital investment to augment FE colleges and create a national network of high-quality provision. Gavin Williamson’s assumption of the skills portfolio suggests that greater largesse may be forthcoming and has been welcomed by providers as sign of FE’s prioritisation. Nevertheless, significant investment is necessary, but not sufficient, to grapple with the “class-based segregation” (Social Mobility Commission) within the English education system. Participation levels are widening amongst adult learners, with just 20 percent of disadvantaged adults participating in learning in the last three years, compared with 48 percent in higher social grades. Augar’s recommendation that free Level 2 and 3 entitlements be extended to over 24s could therefore prove attractive. Meanwhile, disadvantaged younger pupils are overrepresented in Applied General Qualifications, potentially jeopardised by the Level 3 review. Whilst the T-level action plan includes a transition programme targeted at young people “who are not ready to start at 16, but who can realistically achieve a T-level by 19”, this approach will likely not be the answer for all young people. Greater flexibility may be required to empower more young people to access level 3 study. As Robert Halfon has remarked, the “skills problem is a social justice issue. Our most disadvantaged individuals pay the highest price for low skills but also have the most to gain from up-skilling”.