Friday, 28 June 2013

Palpable nonsense Extended Version

Last week, Sir Michael Wilshaw spoke out. Mostly it concerned the postcode lottery of education in this country; he also took a carefully aimed shot at FE Success rates, called for the dismantling of inadequate colleges grown too large and replacing them with smaller specialist units, for FE to make stronger links to business, implement all of the Richard Review of apprenticeships and finally measure the rate of progress and outcomes for all young people who had previously been eligible for free school meals.

Inspections under the new CIF although rightly focussed on teaching and learning, still quote Success as the main judgement. Reading through Ofsted reports released this month, I found they mention on average, in approximately 14 pages; ‘Success rates’ x18, Retention x4, Outcomes x4 and Achievement x6. 

If it is ‘palpable nonsense’ to measure FE by Success Rates, (and I don’t disagree) why do Ofsted continue to use it as their first judgement? Measures of education need to reflect more accurately the comprehensive mission of Colleges and the diverse student population they serve. 

Now, the Success factor will be replaced by a Retention factor. Is the Retention Factor the right measure? No; just keeping a learner isn’t a good enough measure of what we do. Instead of twiddling with data types, let’s make the system work.

The problem isn't with FE, Sixth Forms or other types of college; it is with the system of measurement; the Common Inspection Framework. We acknowledge that one size of education doesn’t suit all learners, so why should we expect one size of judgement to suit all colleges, why a Common Framework?

How many colleges enrol a disproportionate number of under motivated and challenging learners, yet enable them to achieve wonders, relative to their starting position? When compared to a Sixth form stuffed with bright, motivated, well supported A level candidates, they seem inadequate. Is this fair? 

I do not believe so. 

There are 219 GFE, 94 Sixth Forms, 15 Landbased, 3 Art & Design and 10 Specialist Colleges in England, all with different learners, different objectives and different outcomes. Measure us differently. If we continue to judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, we are condemning excellent teaching and learning to years of failure.

Colleges should be allowed to decide if they wish to have a Vocational or Academic (or Landbased, Specialist etc) focus. Then the inspection framework adjusted to suit one of the five college types. The current CIF is just trying to cover all bases at once and you cannot measure academic, vocational, enterprise, entrepreneurship, apprentices, training, adult and Foundation learning with the same stick. 

So, why not redesign the inspection format and inspect them in a way that is relevant to their aims. For example, FE colleges are run as a business, so why not measure them that way: 

  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Growing Customer Base
  • Stakeholder Satisfaction
  • Employee Satisfaction
  • Finances 

Put this into the annual SAR to Ofsted; coupled with an External Quality Reviews by Peer colleges on Teaching and Learning. The College grade would encompass both reports. The grade would be timely, relevant and more reflective of the true state of FE.  Any reports ringing alarm bells could warrant a visit by the new Commissioner and his team.

Another measure could be a combination of: 

  • Learner voice (how did they rate their experience) Educationally, or wider benefits e.g. confidence or esteem, and employment prospects
  • Grading from employers who work with the provider
  • Percentages of students who left in which time period relative to their main qualification length?
  • Percentage of students who left in the first six weeks
  • Achievement of all parts of the Study Programmes
  • Percentage of students who undertook voluntary work
  • Percentage of students achieving L2 Maths and English
  • Percentage of students who would recommend the college
  • Measuring the rate of progress of all learners relative to their starting point, not just those eligible for free school meals
  • Combined with weighted outcomes job in same industry studied (higher), or other (lower), university or further training (equal to SIS)or no measurable outcome

An overall grade could be assigned to the college on a points system, with a range of points available (out of 100) for each of the (scaled) measures. This could be reviewed by the office of the new Commissioner, leaving a smaller Ofsted to focus on Sixth Form and Schools.

Why not a financial incentive for every positive destination in FE? As Richard reports “This can be most elegantly ensured by making sure that the funding of the system focuses everyone in the correct direction. In that spirit, I also recommend a re-direction of funding.”

Success Rates, driven by the funding incentives have played a large part in the growth of the number of qualifications available and increased course Success rates, but FE now works in a complex financial landscape; forced to make choices that may adversely affect the learners. How does this serve the poor, disadvantaged learners from leafy suburbs and coastal, rural environments? Good education deserves good funding.

Wilshaw talks of dismantling ‘too large’ colleges; are they, rather than their Success Rates the target? A number of large colleges have been downgraded yet the latest advert for an Ofsted inspector states ‘You might be the Vice Principal or member of the Senior Leadership Team of a large college,’ A large college? So, you can’t run a college but you can inspect them?

Size isn’t the issue, it is management and governance. There are Principals who have hung onto their role for years, whilst failing to improve; did Ofsted recommend those Principals were removed? No, they left them in post. If 67% are ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ and 4% are inadequate, then the Commissioner will have to deal with fewer than two or three a year. Could Ofsted, in conjunction with learners and stakeholders make recommendations to be reviewed by an independent Commissioner instead?

Large or small we are focussed on our learners; no matter how it is measured. We take in learners from rural and deprived areas and put on courses to reach this diverse audience. Will these learners stick with a ‘Study Programme’; have the necessary self-motivation to cope with so much independent learning caused by the increasingly stringent funding cuts and hit the new measure of Retention? 

Shine your light Sir Michael, we have nothing to hide; we’ve played by the rules of the organisation that judge us. But before you berate FE colleges further, raise your own game by looking at more varied and reliable evidence. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013


My first teacher was Miss Armstrong; she taught me to tie my shoelaces, recite the Lords Prayer with precision and how to grow Broad Beans in a jar. 

She also taught me the power of educational policy. I was naturally left-handed, which to Miss Armstrong and educational theorists of the time was an abomination. She tied my left hand to the back of the chair when we practised our looping, swooping handwriting skills on stiff manuscript paper with pale blue lines. This was perfectly acceptable to the school, my parents and even to me. If right-handedness was the key to learning, I would be right-handed. I didn’t question it. No one questioned educational theory or teachers. 

Over the years so many educational, teaching or learning theories and methods have appeared, briefly flared and thankfully faded, although some remain. 'Learning Styles'; Kinesthetic, Verbal, Visual, VAK questionnaires, Active Learning, rote-learning, chalk and talk, accessing skills, critical thinking, higher order skills, learning to learn, lifelong learning, meta-cognitive, problem solving and teaching for understanding. (instead of teaching for …) Hmm. There are hundreds more.

At first glance this appears insane. In twenty years or so teaching has undergone so many changes of direction it is incredible to think that not only have we and the learners survived this but we’ve taught more and learned more. We now question the validity and purpose of educational theorists and policy makers. We evaluate, select and apply to benefit the learners and the subject; we no longer blanket bomb all learners with the same approach. Questioning and discussion lead to higher standards, collaborative working and new directions.

Questioning has informed F.E. practice. Standards have risen, students access higher and vocational education alongside academic, sharing of good practice takes place between industry and colleges, apprentices thrive and more is done with the latest buzz of ‘Enterprise, Entrepreneurship and Education’. 

F.E. has undergone similar multitudinous changes in funding, governance and direction. Some work, some don’t; so isn’t it a sign of maturity to think about and debate the future of F.E. rather than react to or be pushed into changes? To come together and set our own agenda for future growth and direction?

So why, when I tweeted that the #ukfechat topic might be ‘The future of FE’ did I receive a tweet saying ‘the CEO @AoC_info said … that 'future of FE?' is "nonsensical question". Talked of  VET, HE & community etc.’

Given that we are 20 years old and have weathered the onslaught of changes (financial, political and educational), isn’t it right that we debate the future of F.E.? Someone else tweeted ‘the structural reform needed to get to that in govt would take five years min.. and another 10 for colleges to change (rather than just dance round the funding streams in same form) To ensure we're going the right way, don't we all take a holistic view of the map sometimes, ensuring that the way ahead isn't too mountainous, or twisty and that the journey is smooth?

We’re debating because we care; we’re not Ostriches with our heads firmly buried in the policy sands of education, blinkered to the concerns of those suffering the brunt of zero hour contracts, additional teaching loads in unfamiliar subjects and subject to changes that come thick and fast to the form, function and focus of teaching the next generation. 

If we raise our concerns and ideas, debate them honestly and openly, can we hope that those who do set policy; have influence and ability to shape the focus of F.E., will recognise our commitment to and love of F.E. and incorporate them into their thinking?

F.E. is the best place to work in the world. We love it and care passionately about it and our learners. Questioning its future direction is prudent and indicative of our commitment to it.

To not plan or debate the future of such an important institution is ‘nonsensical’ and frankly, of some concern to those who do love it.