What do we want from the FE White Paper?

The ETF Thinks… article by David Russell, Chief Executive of the Education and Training Foundation. Under the theme of quality of teaching, training and leading, The ETF Thinks… offers articles by experts at the ETF and celebrated sector colleagues that aim to get the sector thinking and discussing specific sector topics for the benefit of the FE workforce and their learners.

What do we want from the FE White Paper?

Policy-watchers are very interested in the potential for change coming from Government’s stated intention to publish an FE White Paper soon.

But for those who don’t follow the details of how a Government department works, you might be forgiven for being hazy on what the heck a “White Paper” actually is.  It’s simple really.  The two main types of Government policy documents are Green Papers and White Papers.

A Green Paper is tentative, early thinking.  It says, “we’re thinking about doing the following types of things, what does everyone else think, please?”  It’s used to get debate going and consult widely; it also serves to create some momentum for Government policy when they haven’t really decided quite what to do yet, or they have no money for it.

A White Paper is more definite.  It says, “we’re going to do these things – does anyone have any suggestions how we can get it exactly right?”.    Some Governments churn out white papers on an almost annual basis – the last Labour Government did this with Skills White Papers in the noughties.  Some – like the Conservative Government since 2015 – are more circumspect, and save White Papers for key moments where they have some ‘political space’ they wish to fill with a significant change of direction or acceleration of activity.

There will be a White Paper on FE soon, we understand.  It will be the vehicle Government uses to signal what the coming Spending Review would like to achieve in the area of Further and Technical Education.  It is the Government’s chance to give big, bold answers in an area of public policy that is politically important to it.  The very presence of a White Paper matters a lot, as it shows that FE has made it into the category of “politically important”.   Some in the sector dread this – we know policy churn and permanent revolution has been a curse in England in FE.  But in politics – as in Oscar Wilde’s social life – the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

So every White Paper is a set of fairly definite answers from Government.  The key to writing a great White Paper is getting the questions right.  What will be the questions at the heart of this White Paper?

Prior to Covid, the front-runner was probably “how do we create an FE system that is high quality and financially sustainable?”.   But other contenders included “how do we make the FE system more responsive to employers’ needs?”; “how do we turn Colleges into high value public assets at the heart of their communities?”; and “how do we boost higher technical education so that it drives our industrial strategy?”.   All good questions.

In the new post-Covid world, a new set of questions become contenders.  “How do we put FE Colleges at the heart of a national recovery plan?”.  “How do we transform Further and Technical education so that it meets the needs of a disrupted and stressed social and economic landscape?”

But I don’t think any of these are the right question for the White Paper to be answering.  The ETF might be expected to want CPD to be at the heart of the debate, as that’s our business.  But CPD is only ever a support act – it will never be the main event.  So that’s not the right focus either.

The whole point of an education and training system is to teach and train.  In the end only two things matter fundamentally: what is taught (curriculum), and how well it is taught (standards).  There are other things policy-makers have to think about (like how much it costs), but curriculum and standards are the core.

There are different approaches available in education policy to deciding what gets taught.  You can have a national curriculum; you can be led by learners’ choices; you can be led by employers’ real-time demands; you can try to predict future national, regional or local need.  But in FE and training in England there is generally a settled consensus that the right approach to curriculum is to try to strike a balance between learner demand and employer demand.  The main mechanism for creating the detail of curriculum is to reverse-engineer it through putting effort into getting qualifications right.  Government White papers typically spend a lot of political energy on the question of the right structures and processes for ascertaining, influencing and meeting employer (and learner) demand.   A lot of the effort is poured into the areas of qualification reform, funding policy and accountability frameworks.

There are also different approaches available to securing how well things are taught.  Broadly the two camps are regulation and control versus deregulation and autonomy.  On this there is a far less consensus in FE in England. We are currently in a phase of deregulation and autonomy, and if there is any movement on this dimension, the most likely move is a pendulum swing back part-way towards regulation or quasi-regulation.

But the really big challenge for policy-makers is to break out of these paradigmatic ways of thinking.   Whitehall thinks about regulation, funding and structures because these are things they know about.  These are things they can act on.   The Secretary of State says something must be done – well, here’s a comprehensive list of things we can do, Minister.

This approach is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  The authors of the White Paper should not start with the question “what should we do to make the FE system more [responsive to employers / sustainable / resilient / efficient / well-respected / responsive to political fiat]” – insert your policy priority du jour.   Instead they should go right back to the purpose of having Colleges and other education and training bodies at all. That purpose is – and this may come as a shocking revelation – to educate and to train.  They should ask what excellence looks like in places that educate and train, and what are the characteristics of a system that supports such excellence.

In other words, the key question for the White Paper should be “what would it take to create an FE system that has excellence in teaching and learning at its heart?”

Asking this question gives a clear magnifying lens for what matters.  This is not to suggest that nobody currently thinks about excellence in teaching and learning in FE.  Of course they do.   They dominant narrative says two things drive provider behaviour – funding re sustainability and Ofsted re quality.   Recent changes to the Ofsted approach have moved away from measuring quality by qualification metrics and towards quality of teaching.  But this now feels like it is in tension with the other forces in the system.  Leaders in the FE system spend a great deal of energy and skill managing finances, estates, stakeholders, people, metrics, and now infection control.    It is not that Teaching and Learning are missing, but rather that they are competing with so many other issues for bandwidth; and I believe this is because government policy does not begin by putting questions of quality of teaching at the heart when it comes to FE.

A White Paper author who was focused on excellent Teaching and Learning would at this stage be asking these questions:

  • How do we attract experience and talent into the FE system to teach?
  • How do we retain talent and experience in the FE workforce?
  • How do we empower leaders of learning to spend their time attending to quality of teaching and learning within their institutions and not the myriad other things the system demands of them?
  • How do we develop our system leaders so that they can prioritise the quality of teaching and learning locally, regionally and nationally?
  • How do we identify and learn from innovation across the nation and internationally?
  • How do we train our new professionals and para-professionals so that they have a deep foundational understanding of pedagogy which they can build upon throughout their careers?
  • How do we build clear career pathways that professionals can pursue to excel in their chosen areas of specialism?
  • How do we facilitate professional exchange to support, stretch and challenge practitioners?
  • How do we ensure that professional standards are embedded in the system and everyone strives to be excellent against them?
  • What are the principles of effective pedagogy that everyone teaching and managing in our FE system needs to be conversant with, and how do we keep them updated and equip everyone with the skills to engage with them critically and reflectively?
  • How do we support sector leaders in recognising, supporting and rewarding excellence in teaching and learning?
  • How do we ensure that the widest possible range of learners are able to maximally engage in the transformational effect of learning in FE?
  • How do we ensure that educators are able stay up to date with their knowledge of and engagement in the industries or fields they are teaching in?
  • How do we create a national network of subject-specific expertise in technical teaching so that everyone in the FE system has a place they can access to stretch and challenge them in their professional practice?

By the time of publication, the authors would have consulted widely enough with the right people to have come up with some brilliant, deliverable answers to these questions.  And that would be a revolution every teacher, every student, and every employer could be jubilant about.

The article was part-published in Tes on 30 June 2020 under the title ‘The 15 questions the FE White Paper must answer‘.

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