Frank Coffield is the conscience of the post-16 sector. When faddishness or instrumentalism threaten, he is there to remind us of our values and our purpose. A decade ago, Coffield was one of the first to question ‘learning styles’ and the sloppy thinking around them and he debunked them with forensic skill. He has systematically exposed successive and simplistic models of improvement in teaching and learning and argued for more profound pedagogic change. He also co-wrote the excellent From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery (2011) which offers us a vision of an alternative, more democratic education system which could help us confront the serious social and environmental challenges we face.
There’s no doubt that in these difficult times for post-16 education we need Coffield and we need more Coffield-ism.
In his latest contribution Resistance is Fertile (March 2015) he suggests 10 demands FE must make of the new government:
- Teacher unions and professional bodies to become equal social partners with government and business in policy development.
- Control over professional matters relating to teaching, learning and assessment to be returned to the teaching profession.
- Teaching to be carried out solely by fully trained professionals.
- Abolish or radically transform Ofsted into a body of professional colleagues dedicated to improving teaching and learning.
- Lifelong learning to become a right of citizenship in a democracy.
- Create an independent, middle tier of governance between national government and institutions.
- Build bipartisan political consensus for a unified 14-19 diploma system which integrates academic and vocational learning.
- Ensure that all new initiatives are carefully designed, thoroughly tested and slowly embedded.
- End the funding crisis, introduce 3 year budgets and simplify funding streams.
- Replace the pressure of permanent revolution with a slower, incremental, evolutionary approach to change.
It’s hard to disagree with these aims. Some of them are urgent and relate to the very existence and survival of our sector, others require long term groundwork and culture change. For this full agenda to be realised, we would have to create a new ‘common sense’ around what post-16 education is for, what professionalism is and how change is brought about. These are not simple targets to be ticked off a list. We’re talking about a major transformational project here and there are no short-cuts.
So what can we do?
Resourcing the post-16 education people need: Demands 5, 7 and 9
The funding crisis is an immediate priority. Full time 16-19 year old students are by far the worst funded in our whole system This strategically vital phase has been excluded from the government’s education spending ring-fence and adult education spending has been slashed. These facts speak volumes about where we are on the agenda and the low regard for our work. We need to make the positive social case for the kind of broad educational programme which all young people need as well as for the benefits of lifelong learning. If it becomes the consensus that post-16 education is a priority, there will necessarily be a consensus about making the choice to resource it properly. In his analysis of the 2015 budget, Mick Fletcher made the simple observation that cutting the price of a pint of beer by a penny could pay for 125,000 adult education places and the £700 cut in spending on all full time 18 year old students was roughly equivalent to the cut of 16p from the price of a bottle of whisky. (Inebriation before education – Policy Consortium). These are matters of political priority and political will.
A more plural and democratic system: Demands 6, 8 and 10
This requires a real shift in the way government thinks about public services and industrial policy. There is some movement towards regionalisation and some recognition that this requires a democratic input. Accountable regional authorities such as the Greater London Authority and other city regions could be given more autonomy to develop distinctive post-16 education strategies and open up space for discussion and debate about what people want from the system, giving themselves time to plan and embed system-wide improvements. Building a more democratically responsive system from the market free-for-all we currently have will not be easy.
Trust and professionalism: Demands 1, 2, 3 and 4
Bringing about this shift is partly in our hands. The more successful, creative and innovative post-16 providers and their staff prove to be, the more we are likely to build the climate of trust and confidence we deserve to work in. We need to take every opportunity, however small, to demonstrate our commitment to learners, to high educational standards and to partnership working. This is how we will win friends, advocates and allies at all levels and create a new context for our work with fewer demands for heavy regulation and policing and more willingness to invest. Another long-term transformational project.
In Resistance is Fertile Frank Coffield reminds us that it will take “collaboration, political nous and the stomach and energy for a prolonged struggle” to turn any of these demands into policy and practice. It will require new coalitions and ways of sharing information and organising, such as ‘Tutors’ Voices’ and other structures we have yet to invent. If we value the work that we do in post-16 education and its vital social contribution we really have no alternative but to listen to our conscience.
More about the post-election landscape: