Creating the conditions for a successful FE system

This week saw the launch of The FE and Skills System, a study by The Policy Consortium.

Subtitled ‘The consequences of policy decisions – lessons for policymakers and stakeholders’, this thorough survey reaches deep into the heart of FE; drawing on feedback from over 500 respondents – experienced, thoughtful and committed professionals –  around half of whom are front line staff.

The report has some clear messages for all the key agencies in post-16 education. Rather than simply acting as a transmission belt for our concerns and grievances, the study identifies 8 key themes and 23 specific root-cause issues and goes on to make constructive recommendations, all of which deserve serious consideration by our key national stakeholders.

The context for FE policy was well summarized in a report of the Commons Public Accounts Select Committee in 2015:

The departments and funding agencies sometimes make decisions without properly understanding the impact on learners, nor the impact on colleges’ ability to compete with other education providers. Colleges face a number of substantial external challenges, some of which are exacerbated by the actions of the departments and their funding agencies.

By listening to the people most affected by these challenges and most committed to the success of the sector, the Policy Consortium study is able to provide first-hand accounts of the impacts of incoherent policy. In summary, it seems that if we want to create the conditions for systemic success we need a clearer vision for the sector, more joined-up policy, performance measures which better reflect our aims, less policy volatility and more secure funding.

By focusing on ‘asks’ of other agencies, the report prompts those of us working within the sector to ask ourselves what we could do differently to help create the kind of system which can genuinely achieve our aim of a successful learning society which serves all its citizens. In his excellent presentation at the launch, Tony Davis shared some thoughts about how the sector could take the agenda forward constructively itself by choosing as its starting point the impact we have on learners. We want our students to become more independent, to be able to research and synthesise, create, adapt and grow, fuelled by curiosity and with an intrinsic understanding of value and quality; in short to be expert learners throughout their lives.

The other major focus of the report is on the policy volatility which has certainly impacted on our work. This understandably leads some to argue that we should ‘take politics of education’ or ‘leave policy to the experts’. However, rather than being a consequence of too much political interest, I think this policy turbulence is a sign of the lack of consensus, clarity and confidence from politicians about what they think society wants from its FE system.

Our representative bodies, such as the AoC, are increasingly good at describing the importance of our work and this could translate into the kind of national consensus which exists around the idea of a National Health Service free for all at the point of use. The NHS is not above politics or free of debate about means – but there is a high degree of agreement about its aims and value. Politics is how we bring about change in a democratic society and it works best when the agenda is clear and there is popular understanding and support. If anything, FE would benefit from more politics; a higher public profile and better informed public debate.

The sector itself can build on the support it already has and work in partnership with others to:

  • Build a strong consensus about the purpose and importance of FE in our society.
  • Value and develop the professional expertise of college staff.
  • Make the social case as well as the economic case for our work.
  • Offer our students coherent curricula, not just qualifications.
  • Demonstrate the benefits of collaboration rather than markets to meet the educational needs of our communities.

We should thank Tony Davis and his colleagues for this significant contribution to the discussion and each of us can do our bit in helping to create the conditions for an even more successful further education system.

See also:

A pdf version of the report can be found here and there is also a flipbook version.

Let’s tackle the causes, not the symptoms Tony Davis in the Times Education Supplement this week.

Sixth Form hopes for 2018 (January 2018)

Life in the sixth form funding canyon (October 2017)

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

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2017 sees further increase in sixth form student research.

The steady rise in Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) entries in England’s sixth forms suggests that student research is increasingly valued. 8% of all advanced sixth form completers in publicly funded sixth forms are entered for it, however many are studying in sixth forms where it isn’t available with 37% of all sixth forms not offering the EPQ at all.

The 39,080 EPQ entries in 2017 represent a 3% increase over the previous year and this continues the upward trend of the past 8 years. Nationally, 63% of EPQ entries come from over 1,400 school sixth forms, 24% of entries come from 175 colleges (with 81 sixth form colleges accounting for the great majority of college entries: 19% of the total) and 376 private fee-charging schools account for around 13% of entries.

The average number of EPQ entries per sixth form college is 94 which is well above the average for any other provider type (17 for state funded schools and 14 for private schools). 14 of the top 20 centres by size are sixth form colleges with the same ‘top 5’ as last year. For the fourth year running the list is headed by Hills Road Sixth Form College with 1,085 EPQ entries. Esher is 2nd with 473 entries, 3rd is Peter Symonds with 355, Barton Peveril is 4th with 350 and 5th is Bilborough with 346.

The EPQ is not the only way to accredit student research but it does offer UCAS points and is valued by universities as a sign of students’ academic curiosity as well as their research and presentation skills. A good EPQ allows a young person to investigate a question which interests them critically, analytically and in some depth. Their topic might be a deeper exploration of a theme being studied in one of their subjects, it may arise from the interaction of their subjects or the spaces between them, or it may be something entirely personal and unrelated. At its best, it can be an original contribution which involves some primary research and offers a genuinely new insight. The EPQ is an opportunity for students to produce their version of an apprentice’s ‘masterpiece’ which demonstrates their commitment and their promise and makes a tangible contribution to their community. It should be something they can proudly present to a wide audience and which provokes discussion and reflection.

At a time of continuing squeeze on public funding for sixth form education which makes a 4 A level programme unaffordable for most, an EPQ can be a good way to broaden students’ programmes and build on their wider academic interests. However, it attracts no additional funding for a 3 A level student and many providers will feel they cannot afford resource this additionality.

At its best, the product of student research projects provides evidence of initiative and skill which can hold its own in the wider world. Aiming for this should form part of everyone’s sixth form experience. For today’s visual or performing arts students, this evidence could build on their current portfolios, artefacts or student devised productions. For students of other disciplines, it might be a student-led community project, social enterprise, publication or the more traditional written essay. Digital platforms offer a great opportunity to share and discuss these products widely and sixth form teachers, university academics, professionals, employers and local residents could all play a part in supporting, assessing and celebrating student research. Universities could extend and deepen their support for developing a research culture – particularly where EPQ entries are low or non-existent. Regional partnerships could provide training and resources for sixth form staff and students across a wide area.

The London picture:

Looking at London in more detail, it is evident that despite growth overall, the availability of EPQ provision is patchy with a student in Barking nearly 5 times more likely to do an EPQ than one in Hackney. On average, 6% of the eligible second year advanced cohort across London is entered for an EPQ although this proportin varies from borough to borough (see table below).

2017 EPQ entries by London borough – publicly funded sixth forms only

No. of entries / entries as a proportion of eligible cohort

London borough 2017 %  of cohort
Lambeth 164 14%
Barking 206 14%
Sutton 269 13%
Southwark 130 12%
Croydon 242 10%
Tower Hamlets 145 9%
Newham 166 8%
Hammersmith & Fulham 106 8%
Bromley 260 8%
Ealing 144 8%
Kingston 145 7%
Lewisham 151 7%
Wandsworth 163 7%
Greenwich 90 7%
Barnet 254 7%
Hillingdon 176 6%
Harrow 136 6%
Westminster 115 6%
Merton 37 5%
Brent 88 5%
Waltham Forest 131 5%
Enfield 85 5%
Bexley 78 4%
Kensington & Chelsea 40 4%
Redbridge 120 4%
Islington 67 4%
Richmond 55 4%
Havering 81 3%
Hounslow 62 3%
Camden 100 3%
Hackney 49 3%
Haringey 32 3%
City of London 0
London total 4,087 6%

Data drawn from the underlying data in the 2017 performance tables.

Health warnings:

  • There is a margin of error in the national and London data due to the suppression of data for centres with 1-5 candidates (new this year). For centres where this occurs, their entries have been assumed to be 3 entries per centre – leading to a potential error for publicly funded providers of + or – 844 nationally and + or – 180 in London.
  • London data is for the borough where providers are based, not the borough where students live. If a borough is served by a large provider whose main campus is actually in a neighbouring borough that is where the data appears.

A few suggestions:

  • The possibilities and the benefits of expanding student research are evident but there aren’t enough incentives for more sixth forms to promote this important work: the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) should consider incentivising the EPQ in the same way that high achieving students on larger programmes attract more funding with a longer term aim of including research skills as part of national programmes of study.
  • Providers themselves should aim to increase EPQ take up overall: A target of at least 5% moving towards 10% of the cohort in every sixth form would be an achievable goal.
  • EPQ delivery lends itself to an area partnership approach and universities and employers are well placed to support this as it is very much in their interest to develop young people’s independent research skills. Local networks covering each area could be tasked with promoting and supporting EPQ provision across their patch.
  • EPQ entries shouldn’t only be targeted at A-level students who have already demonstrated good research skills and initiative: we should aim for a more inclusive and ambitious approach where the EPQ is seen as a way of developing those skills in all students including those for whom this is a steeper learning curve. The high cohort participation in some colleges are partly a reflection of the very high prior achievement of their students as well as of a strong research culture (eg: Hills Road at 98% of the cohort), but some more comprehensive providers also manage participation well above average (eg: Regent College in Leicester at 19%).
  • Promoting and expanding the use of the Foundation (level 1) and Higher (GCSE level) Project Qualifications in schools and colleges would help to build skills and confidence and put in place the stepping stones many students need to help them work their way up to a fully fledged EPQ. Sixth form providers could offer to help Year 11 students achieve a Higher Project (GCSE level standard) in order to develop their research skills and prepare for progression. [There doesn’t seem to be any data on HPQ entries in the Key Stage 4 Performance Table underlying data – I’d be grateful if anyone knows where this can be found]

See also:

Sixth Form student research continues to grow 2016 data (June 2017)

More sixth formers doing research projects 2015 data (February 2016)

Promoting a sixth form student research culture (September 2014)

EPQ chief examiner John Taylor wrote an excellent piece in the TES with 8 top success tips for teachers, 4 of which are here

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Pathologically wrong: Humours and Miasma.

Humours and Miasma: Science in Society 8.

Humoral theory and miasma theory: two long-lasting medical paradigms now consigned to the history of human error but which shaped our ideas about health and disease and the development of medical practice and public health for many centuries.

Humoral theory

The theory of humours was one of the main paradigms for understanding health and disease for many centuries going back to ancient Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic traditions but it didn’t survive the scientific and experimental approach to medicine which became dominant the 19th century.

The theory takes its name from the word ‘humours’ meaning fluids. Health was thought to come from the proper balance of four ‘humours’ or fluids in the body; black bile (also known as melancholy), yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Anything that upset the equilibrium between these humours, such as a change in the weather, could lead to disease.

The theory was formalised by Hippocrates (ca. 460–370 BCE) and built on by Arabic doctors such as Ibn-Sinna (‘Avicenna’) and  al-Razi (‘Rhazes’) in the 9th century. It was also used to explain human temperament through four main personality types connected to the humours and caused by an excess of one or another: melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic.

Each humour was associated with properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and wetness as well as one of the four seasons.

Blood: Sanguine temperament (active, energetic, robust), associated with Air and Spring.

Yellow bile: Choleric temperament (decisive, ambitious, quick to anger), associated with Fire and Summer.

Black bile: Melancholic temperament (thoughtful, reserved, suspicious), associated with Earth Autumn.

Phlegm: Phlegmatic temperament (peaceful, lazy, quiet) associated with Water and Winter.

Each individual’s humoral balance was connected with other phenomena—such as climate, diet, occupation, location, planetary alignment, sex, age, and social class. The combined holistic effect of these might differ between individuals. Humoral treatments, or regimens, were designed to restore the proper humoral balance through bloodletting, enemas or purges, diet and lifestyle changes and by individualised medications. Doctors relied on personal knowledge of their patient and the inspection of blood, urine, and other fluids produced by the body; and on the patient’s description of their symptoms.

The appeal of the humoralism which dominated medicine and formed its heritage lay in its comprehensive explanatory scheme, which drew upon bold archetypal contrasts (hot/cold, wet/dry etc.) and embraced the natural and the human, the physical and the mental, the healthy and the pathological. While reassuringly intelligible to the layman, it was a supple tool in the hands of the watchful bedside physician and open to further theoretical elaboration.

From chapter 2 ‘Doctors’ from ‘Blood and Guts’ by Roy Porter (2002).

18th century depiction of the 4 temperaments

Miasma theory

Miasma theory was the principal paradigm of the spread of disease across many parts of the world for thousands of years. Miasma was the name given to poisonous and foul-smelling ‘bad air’ or ‘night air’ arising from decomposed matter and containing ‘miasmata’ coming from soil and other non-human sources. Disease was assumed to arise from this foul air rather than passing between individuals. This belief gave priority to ventilation and exposure to ‘fresh air’ as preventative measures. For example, the war nurse, Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) based her efforts to make hospitals sanitary and fresh-smelling on miasma theory.

In the early nineteenth century, belief in miasma theory led people to fear fog which was thought to indicate the presence of miasma. Some people regarded miasma as being able to completely alter the properties of the air.

By the 19th century the medical community was split on the question of how disease was spread. Believers in miasma theory thought that disease could proliferate without physical contact while ‘contagionists’ believed that disease was transmitted through physical contact. At this time, the living conditions of Britain’s crowded cities in were very unsanitary and there were regular outbreaks of fatal diseases such as cholera. Miasma seemed to explain the spread of cholera and other diseases in places where the water was undrained and very foul-smelling, such as the banks of the river Thames with its presumed concentration of deadly miasmata.

The wide acceptance of miasma theory during the cholera outbreaks overshadowed the findings of London doctor, John Snow (1813-1858) who made the connection between cholera and typhoid epidemics and contaminated water sources, suggesting that there was some means by which the disease was spread from person to person via what he called a ‘morbid material’ in the water supply. During the cholera epidemic of 1854, Snow traced high mortality rates among the citizens of Soho to a water pump in Broad Street. Snow convinced the local authorities to remove the pump handle and this led to a marked decrease in cholera cases in the area.

Sanitary reformers wanted to reduce the spread of disease and improve public health and proposed reform on the basis of miasma theory. Their proposals contributed to major improvements in drainage and sewage systems which did lead to a reduced incidence of cholera and actually helped to support miasma theory for a while. Miasma theory was consistent with the observations that disease was associated with poor sanitation and the associated foul smells. However, it was not consistent with the findings of experimental microbiology which were to lead to the germ theory of disease.

By the late 19th century, there was enough scientific evidence to support a germ theory of disease transmission which accounts for disease proliferation by both direct and indirect physical contact. In 1876 the German microbiologist Robert Koch (1843-1910) proved beyond doubt that anthrax was caused by a bacterium and in 1884, working in Bombay (Mumbai), he was able to isolate the bacterium which causes cholera. These discoveries brought a decisive end to miasma theory.

Even though miasma theory was comprehensively disproved by the discovery of pathogenic bacteria, and later viruses, it did help to make the connection between poor sanitation and disease and led to public health reforms and encouraged good sanitation measures.

A cholera epidemic depicted as miasma

Questions:

1. Why do you think these paradigms remained dominant for so long?

2. Humoral theory is no longer the basis for our understanding of health and disease. Are there any aspects of its application which can be related to modern medical practice?

3. ‘Miasma’ theory is no longer used as an explanation for the spread of infectious disease and was overtaken by the germ theory in the late 19th century. Are there any cases of the two theories being compatible with each other?

4. Choose one of these statements to explain:

(a) Despite being wrong, miasma theory helped to promote public health.

(b) In science, every incorrect theory contains the seeds of a more accurate one.

See also:

How we do science – Science in Society 3: developing and testing scientific explanations.

Introduces the idea of paradigms or scientific belief systems and includes the story of Ignaz Semmelweis.

The germ theory of disease – Science in Society 6: Pasteur, Koch and the microbe hunters.

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My islands – by Line Mariani Playfair

I have always had a strong affinity for atlases and islands. Whether a single volcanic rock or one likely to fragment or disappear underwater, each one seems to be calling me, speaking to my imagination. I was fascinated by Thor Heyerdahl’s book on Easter Island and I was very excited when I first saw the powerful head of Hoa Hakanani’a in the British Museum.

I have lived for 60 years on one island and I was born on another; one which I think of every day and which I still feel viscerally bound to. I praise its beauty with all the pride of ownership; its sea, its mountains, its wilderness, its springs and its torrents. Corsica can charm me, annoy me, amuse me, disturb me and delight me.

I’ve travelled widely with my husband, a research immunologist. I’ve given lectures in schools and to French Circles in the United Kingdom. From Mexico to Norway, Corsica has been one of my favourite topics, with the result that many of the people I’ve met end up finding their way to my little village to look up my friend Francette Orsoni and tell her how much they love her illustrated Corsican tales. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always received a warm welcome and have made many lasting friends. The enthusiasm others have shown for my island story has spurred my own wish to delve deeper into Corsican culture; to know more in order to share more.

I learnt all the most important things while staying in our village as a child; the language and traditions, cooking, the rituals of arrival and departure. Gifts in a basket covered by a white napkin – the basket always returned with other gifts: three fresh eggs, a bottle of wine or the first figs of the season wrapped in a large leaf. My mother and grandmother drained tomatoes in a white bag hanging over a bucket to prepare a conserve. We put the figs and prunes out to dry. We did the laundry in the river using big bars of soap. Trout would sometimes show themselves and my mother would catch them with a basin or even with her bare hands. There was also the ritual of the strapunta; restuffing a mattress by removing all the wool, washing and re-carding it. Another major event in the village was the slaughter of a pig, or for the less well-off the sharing out of wild boar meat after the hunt.

We would pick herbs for soup, made with a dash of olive oil and cubes of dry broccio cream cheese. On summer afternoons one of my uncles would take me swimming in the river with my friends and in the evenings we would play loto.

As my mother often stayed in town with my father, my grandmother would look after me. My radius was limited, I was allowed to fetch water at the village fountain for neighbours and I also helped to thread needles for those with fading eyesight. At siesta time, my grandmother expected me to do school work; I remember lots of questions about taps filling baths. This was also my opportunity to read. As it was wartime, books were in short supply and there were some very fallow times when I had to resort to the novels of Zenaide Fleuriot or back copies of the periodical Les Veillées des Chaumières.

In winter, it was roast chestnuts by the fire, beignets and polenta and lots of gossip and storytelling. Comic tales of Grossu Minutu or apocryphal stories about the ‘priest’s son’. One Christmas in the village, a neighbour who was a maga, gave me the power of signadora – to dispel the evil eye – something I still occasionally need to use.

Living in the village taught me the importance of gardens and terraces, alternate watering, good manners and never to call on people at meal times. When one did visit, there were often new dogs, cats or donkeys to make friends with and the goats would always take my chestnuts but seemed unimpressed by my efforts at milking them. I observed the power and discretion of the women in the community and learnt the value of listening, of speaking as little as possible and of keeping secrets.

When I arrived in London I was immediately fascinated by the city; its river, museums, buses and parks. No one seemed to know anything about Corsica. My host family showed some interest in it as a tourist destination and we had a fruitful exchange of Jewish and Corsican traditions. As my English improved, I started to go out more, including to the Proms at the Albert Hall where I was able to listen to some of the best orchestras in the world for a modest 2/6. One summer evening, in a Prom queue, some Italian friends introduced me to a young medical student who loved music and France and he introduced me to his mother. She had visited Corsica and had met the famous lawyer Moro ‘the lion’ Giafferi.

‘Ma’ was Jocelyn Playfair, nee Malan, a writer of Huguenot descent and ‘pa’ was a Major General, who had worked with field-marshal Montgomery, there was also a younger brother who was completing his studies at Cambridge. I was immediately adopted by this very British and somewhat eccentric family. Through Jocelyn I met writers and artists as well as people who lived outside London, giving me the opportunity to discover the English countryside. The General was writing a very weighty military history and had contributed humorous pieces to Punch about army life. He also composed military marches, waltzes and foxtrots which he performed with gusto on the piano. I married John, the medical student, and somehow fitted in very well. The contents of our parcels from Corsica were shared widely and elicited much comment. Back home, my parents started to welcome a succession of keen and sometimes very odd travellers, never sure whether to expect a diving enthusiast, an orchestral conductor, a NASA engineer or a former Russian spy. These visitors were all fascinated by the island but knew little of it beyond Napoleon. They hadn’t heard of Pasquale Paoli or the fact that Corsica had been part of Britain for a few years in the 18th century.

Later, I gained greater confidence in myself and in my origins and I was able to take pride in writing in my mother tongue. I met Dorothy Carrington (Lady Frédérica Rose) who wrote about Corsica in Granite Island. Carrington was particularly interested in the condition of women and it was she who realised the importance of the prehistoric site at Filitosa in the South West of the island. She was an inspiration.

Finding myself in a foreign country, I had to learn and understand the culture I was going to live and work in while also blending it with my own. I wanted to share the music, literature and gastronomy of my native island. We waited impatiently for my mother’s parcels and our friends learnt to appreciate Corsican honey and cheese, chestnut flour, orange wine, charcuterie and eau de vie. Before moving to England, I had never worn my national costume but, having been asked, I produced a variation which was more cheerful than the rather drab post first world war version.

We are all aware of our origins and our inheritance. We all have a family history, a cultural, linguistic and political heritage. The Corsican people have a distinctive cultural identity and Corsicans are proud of this distinctiveness. When we leave Corsica, we have to learn to think and act more freely without such strong anchors. We can define being Corsican in cultural terms but it’s also a recognition of the importance of culture to others. To be Corsican is precisely to take into account the world beyond Corsica and to benefit from what the rest of Europe and the world has to offer us.

Corsicans have character and they generally know how to express it. They have little trouble transcending their minority status, affirming their identity or making their way in the world and Pasquale Paoli demonstrated this very effectively in the Enlightenment period. They have learnt to observe with irony and humour and to cultivate the ability to listen and to know when to be silent.

Pasquale Paoli is commemorated in London annually, both at Westminster Abbey on the anniversary of his death and at St. Pancras Church on the first Sunday in February. After mass at St. Pancras, a few Corsicans and local parishioners share a traditional Corsican feast, whose recipes are included in the parish recipe book. We have planted an olive tree at the end of Paoli avenue and dedicated a park bench to mark his time at St. Pancras. There is also a plaque on the house at 77 South Audley street where he spent 3 months. These are memorial sites which serve to remind us of the link between our two islands and to document our diaspora.

My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all born on this island, will always have part of their inheritance on that other island where the sky is vast, the stars numerous and the mountains rich in tales to share.

Line Mariani Playfair, 2017

See also:Boswell in Corsica,  Paoli in London

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Sixth form hopes for 2018.

I’ve been posting new year’s wishes for sixth form education since January 2015. This started with 5 ‘modest, realistic and realisable’ hopes. By 2016 the list had been cut to 4 and was then further reduced to 3 a year later.

In summary, the ‘resolutions’ for 2017 were:

1. To describe our educational aspirations for 16-19 year olds and try not to be limited by narrow conceptions of ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ education.

If anything, 2017 has seen us go backwards nationally in this respect, with a widening gulf between ‘skills’ and technical education policies and the ‘academic’ route consisting of reformed linear A-levels.

2. To try to find common ground between all 16-19 providers and make a strong case for the properly resourced high quality sixth form education that all young people deserve.

As a sector, we did this effectively this year, thanks to our representative organisations, the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) who worked to build new alliances and lobbied hard for an immediate and modest injection of £200 per full-time student pending the promised review of post-16 funding. MPs from all parties seem to accept the case that 16-19 education is now seriously underfunded. However, this political support did not translate into any significant spending commitment in the Autumn Spending Review and we will continue to fall further behind schools and universities in terms of the resources we invest in our students at this important stage. The development of T-levels is just beginning and may lead to some additional resource – but only for some learners. The new funding for additional in levels 3 Maths students announced by the chancellor in November has yet to be explained and it is by no means clear that it will actually result in the desired outcome.

3. To start planning for a coherent, comprehensive 16-19 system capable of offering choice and entitlement to a broad and challenging education for all young people.

The area reviews are a fading memory and although many colleges have merged, local coherence remains a distant prospect while rampant market madness continues. The lack of any local area planning or co-ordination means that ‘choice and diversity’ often means ‘fewer options and greater selection’ in practice.

So, what can we reasonably work for in 2018?

This year I am whittling my own resolutions down to just two:

1. Continue to make the case for investment in 16-19 education and a review of post-16 funding.

It’s disappointing that post-16 education has not yet found its place at the heart of social policy and it seems unlikely that the current government will start reinvesting in Further Education despite its evident economic benefits and transformative power. The best we can hope for may be some targeted new investment via T-levels and this comes at the price of a deeper academic/vocational divide and will do little to advance broad general educational aims for this age group.

In the short term, even £100 per learner on the national £4,000 rate would be welcome. Such a sum would amount to less than the annual Departmental underspend on 16-19 education, effectively loose change down the back of the sofa, but it would make a real difference to colleges which are having to make impossible choices between different cuts, all of which would be damaging to students.

In the medium term, we might hope that a genuine and objective review of post-16 funding could lead to some rebalancing of resources between learners in different phases and on different programmes. However, government FE and HE policy seems to point in the opposite direction, with more differential funding driven by economic imperatives rather than a universal educational entitlement.

In the longer term, we can take some comfort from the fact that changed priorities at the national level often follow a few years after the grassroots campaigning making the case for such change. We have no choice but to fight our corner and we owe it to our future students to keep making the case.

This rather gloomy prognosis leads me to my second resolution, which also requires planning for the future without any expectation of short term gain:

2. Start developing plans for 16-19 education as part of a National Education Service.

The idea of a National Education Service (NES) is to mobilise all our publicly funded educational resources to provide the best possible opportunities for all our people. It represents a departure from the marketised, education-as-a-commodity which we have learned to live with. It’s what many European countries take for granted and is a perfectly realistic aspiration. It has emerged from the Labour Party but has the potential to attract cross-party support in the way the NHS has and to become the common-sense of a new generation.

So far, the NES concept has mainly been linked with spending commitments such as free university tuition and more investment in early years education. Clearly, identifying and prioritising resources is essential but a successful NES will also require new ideas for allocating existing resources, new structures and new ways of doing things to support the development of a new kind of education service.

We need to take this idea seriously and help flesh out the detail and articulate what form post-16 education might take in a new NES. This work needs to begin now and it might not bear fruit until 2022.

In conclusion:

My prediction for 2018 is that the funding context for our work will not improve and we will all have some very difficult decisions to make. Our full-time students will continue to be the worst funded in the whole system and to receive fewer hours of teaching and a narrower curriculum than their peers in most developed countries. We need to continue to hold to our educational values, provide the best service we can and collaborate more where this is possible. I think our promotional, campaigning and policy development work needs to be focused on the type of medium and longer-term goals outlined above and I wouldn’t expect any quick wins in 2018.

However, with the right kind of work in the next year or two we could lay the foundations for a renaissance in public service post-16 and adult education and that is a prize worth working for.

Post-16 funding:

Life in the sixth form funding canyon (October 2017)

Previous New Year hopes:

Sixth form resolutions for 2017 (January 2017)

New Year wishes for sixth form education in 2016 (January 2016)

5 New Year wishes for post-16 education (January 2015)

A National Education Service:

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

For a National Education Service (July 2015)

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Top posts of 2017.

Most popular posts of 2017

Of the posts I published on this site in 2017, the most read were:

Sixth form resolutions for 2017: 3 modest resolutions to make 2017 better than its predecessor.

10 things which could improve education: the outline of a charter for an education system based on equality and social and personal transformation.

Reconstruction in an age of demolition: post-16 education in England today is characterised by selection, marketisation, low expectations and inadequate investment. We need to develop an alternative building on the best of our capacities.

The GCSE retake challenge: we should be aiming for high standards of literacy and numeracy but the ‘comparative outcomes’ approach is hindering progress.

Education and the French presidential election: evaluating the education policies of the 5 main contenders for the French presidency.

NewVIc results 2017 and NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university: summaries of our best ever results at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc).

The East End’s ‘engine of progression’: How the Daily Mail could have described our achievements, but didn’t.

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation: a more general celebration of our borough’s long-standing track record of university progression despite being a ‘deprived’ area.

Design for leaning: how we set about creating a wonderful new building for our college.

The best of things: what the opening of our new building means for young people in Newham.

My NewVIc story – Kabir Jagwani: the latest in this alumni series, featuring a former NewVIc student who is now a senior leader in our neighbouring secondary school.

2. Also worth reading from 2017

A few of the other posts published last year:

From Toynbee to TELCO via Chicago and From ‘slumming’ to solidarity: a brief history of responses to urban poverty and inequality from the late 19th century university settlements to today’s community organising and social activism.

Education is a human right: a reminder that we are a long way from fulfilling the global promise of education for all and article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A global crisis requires a global politics: conflict threatens the survival of 20 million of our fellow human beings. A challenge on this scale cannot be addressed by the politics of national interest.

Citizens of somewhere, citizens of anywhere: rejecting the false choice between inward-looking parochialism and outward facing internationalism.

Oxbridge admissions – time for action: highly selective universities cannot absolve themselves from widening participation, this post offers 4 practical proposals for immediate action.

The narrative of the ‘poor bright child’: challenging a model of social mobility which fails to address structural inequality.

Equality at the heart of our values: we need to emphasize the egalitarianism at the core of the British values which we promote.

Giving young people a stake in their future: making the case for a truly universal citizens’ service as part of a richer and more challenging education including free higher education.

Easing student debt won’t cut it: minor mitigation of the impact of university fees does nothing to challenge the harm being done by marketization of Higher Education. We need to reconsider the financialization of education.

Shaping an alternative education policy: the egalitarian vision underlying Labour’s education proposals and the need for a system.

Education 2022 Market or system? What will education in England look like in 2022? Two very different possible futures.

Learning through conflict: conflict and disagreement are essential for human progress and learning. We need to value understanding, complexity and deliberation and help our students reach beyond who they are and what they know.

The Habits of democracy: education’s role in developing the practice of democracy and the understanding and experience which support it.

Challenging IQ: questions the usefulness of ‘general intelligence’ and behavioural genetics and urges caution about behavioural, social or political claims derived from genetic data.

Life in the sixth form funding canyon: far from being ‘flat cash’, what we have experienced is a massive funding cut per student in recent years; a serious threat to what we can offer our students.

The Mathematics of survival: poems for difficult times by NewVIc students working with English PEN.

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The narrative of the ‘poor bright child’.

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life. Jane Addams.

Earlier this month the government announced a £23m ‘future talent fund’ targeted at ‘bright’ students from poorer backgrounds. New investment in education can only be welcome and the new fund may do some good. However, without wishing to reject any gift horses, in the context of under-investment overall it seems to be taking a highly selective approach to which young people are worth investing in, based as it is on the narrative of the ‘poor bright child’.

Much of the thinking behind the rhetoric of social mobility is based on implied hierarchies. The assumption seems to be that social inequalities are inevitable and that in order to make society fairer we need to ensure that those who ‘deserve’ to move up the hierarchy get a chance. Their merit is generally established through some kind of educational proxy; ‘potential’, ‘talent’, ‘intelligence’ etc. Once we have the measure and the label, we simply need to search for those who fit the bill and help them up rather than questioning the root causes of the prior inequality.

The preferred subject of such policies is therefore the ‘poor, bright child’ as the best symbol of the possibility of meritocratic upward social mobility. They need to be identified, sought out and lifted up in a particular way as their needs are clearly different from those of the irredeemably poor and ‘not bright’. This approach acknowledges that being economically disadvantaged does have a negative impact on likely educational success. By adding the adjective ‘bright’, advocates are distinguishing between children based on some ill-defined innate property of bring ‘bright’ or intelligent, something not accessible to all and with a limited distribution. Being ‘bright’ equates to being worthy of particular interventions to overcome the obstacle of socio-economic disadvantage.

The measures used to categorise children as ‘bright’ or otherwise are very limited and very limiting. Age-related achievement in standardised tests or exams are used to categorise children from an early age and we should not be surprised when success in early assessments is the strongest predictor in continuing success with increasingly wider gaps opening up between children at different levels.

But what of the ‘not bright’ poor? If being ‘bright’ equates to being worthy, then ‘less bright’ must be less worthy. But if there are social determinants to educational achievement surely these must affect all poor children, not just ‘bright’ ones. If we can acknowledge that money and social capital can buy educational advantage for the ‘not bright’ rich, is there not a possibility that the ‘not bright’ poor could also benefit from such investment?

Educational achievement is not perfectly linear or age-defined. Inclusive, comprehensive post-16 colleges have many students who were written off as academic ‘no-hopers’ at 16 based on their GCSE results and have gone on to achieve well in conventional terms and to progress on to Higher Education. In our sixth form college in Newham for instance, around 200 of our 661 university progressors this year had worked their way up from lower level programmes, having come to us at 16 with mostly D or E grades or below at GCSE (grade 3 or below) – hardly meeting the threshold for being described as ‘bright’. Their journey may be against the expectations but on this scale it shouldn’t be seen as unlikely or against the odds.

The problem is that not everyone who advocates greater social mobility actually wants a more equal society. It is quite possible to be in favour of giving poor, ‘bright’ children a step up while also being wedded to a very unequal society with a high gradient between the poorest and the richest and all the negative implications that has for social cohesion and wellbeing.

This is why the social mobility agenda is essentially regressive and inegalitarian. It conceals its commitment to reproducing existing social inequalities and injustices in a rhetorical cloak of aspiration and fairness. By defining who is deserving of a particular focus, it sets limits on the aspirations of the majority and reinforces a structural, systemic unfairness.

The truth is that such categories as ‘bright’ or ‘not bright’ are far too crude a basis for making educational judgements. We need to understand the complex factors which contribute to educational achievement while keeping faith with the idea that all people are capable of achieving much more than they already have and that all people are worthy of the best education we can offer.

Based on our experience so far, we have some idea of the potential of education, which has already enhanced human capacities beyond anything that was thought possible just a few generations ago. We have barely started to develop the potential of what humans can achieve, individually and collectively. To limit our ambition by using categories such as ‘bright’ is to deny this potential and to reinforce the structural inequalities which hold us all back.

Let’s hope that the new Future Talent Fund can go beyond the narrative of the poor ‘bright’ child and dig more deeply into the causes of social and educational inequality across society.

See also:

The East End’s ‘engine of progression’ (November 2017)

NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university (October 2017)

Overlooked and left behind? (April 2016)

The limits of social mobility (March 2016)

Reducing London’s disadvantage gap (January 2016)

Is social mobility enough? (April 2015)

How can we reduce educational inequality? (September 2014)

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