The appointment of Peter Lauener as the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) while remaining as chief executive of the Education Funding Agency (EFA) has prompted speculation that the two agencies could soon be merged, although this has been denied by ministers.
The creation of a single agency would make a lot of sense, particularly if it signalled a more joined-up approach to post-16 education and training policy in England. The division of responsibilities between the Department for Education (DFE) which hosts the EFA and the Business Innovation and Skills department (BIS) which looks after the SFA has held us back. The fact that school and academy sixth forms and sixth form colleges are sponsored by one department and FE colleges by another makes no sense, given the overlap of their work.
The funding for 16-19 year olds mostly flows through the EFA, while for those 19+ students who are not at university it comes via the SFA meaning that most colleges have to relate to both funding agencies. Amongst other problems, this arbitrary division means that the system can lose the focus on providing what is best for learners rather than what agencies are prepared to fund. It also starts from the assumption that pre-19 learning is essentially ‘educational’ while post-19 strategy is mainly ‘economic’ or employment-related; a gross simplification which does a disservice to both. Separating ‘skills’ from education makes no sense at any level.
The EFA/SFA divide has also created a twilight zone at the boundary meant that few in government have been prepared to speak up for those less qualified 18 year olds who were hit by a 17.5% cut in funding for their programmes this year and who are now the most disadvantaged young people in the system; neither fully funded nor able to access loans for their education. This ‘aspiration tax’ is neither justifiable nor sustainable in the long term but who will grasp the nettle?
The EFA / SFA and DFE / BIS divides are symptoms of a more fundamental failure of the way we think about the purpose of education in this country. We have no national educational objectives for 16 and 17 year olds other than ‘getting a substantial qualification and passing GCSE English and Maths at grade C’. We have no system, just an incoherent patchwork of overlapping and competing providers trying their best to identify and meet some local needs. Funding is pumped into opening more and more selective sixth forms which then compete to attract well qualified A-level students. Vocational programmes are judged in labour market terms and blamed for the lack of jobs for young people rather than being celebrated as educationally valid and successful routes to university. Adult education has been decimated.
There is no ambitious educational strategy for upper secondary education. What do we mean by an educated 19 year old? What knowledge and skills should they all have? How should we prepare them for the challenges facing them as individuals and members of society? What kind of curriculum and institutional arrangements would best ensure that all these young adults can flourish and start to contribute to their society; not just its economy?
Instead of asking these fundamental questions, we obsess over how to sort students into narrow and outdated categories in order to label and segregate them. What we then have to offer is too often driven by the qualification system and the competing interests of providers rather than the needs of the students and the world they are entering.
Creating a national consensus about the education of young adults and designing a new post-16 architecture is a tall order and is unlikely to get very far in the last few months before a general election. But we can and should be debating these questions urgently.
The fact that the two major post-16 educational funding bodies now have the same leadership could be a positive step towards more coherent policy-making and implementation in this important area. Let’s hope it is.