No austerity of the imagination

What’s the mood in sixth form and further education 10 weeks after the election?

Following the May general election there’s no question that post-16 education wherever it takes place faces greater austerity than any other phase of education. 16-18 year olds are funded at a lower rate on average that 5-16 year olds or university students. Funding for tutorial and enrichment and for the broadest programmes has been cut and funding for 18 year olds, whatever their programme, has been further hit by the arbitrary and irrational 17.5% ‘aspiration tax’ which punishes second chance providers.

More colleges are experiencing financial challenges and their very survival may be in question. Competition is eroding trust and collaboration between post-16 providers and narrowing opportunities for students. Our poorest students have already seen big reductions in financial support combined with a growing future debt burden from university fees and now also maintenance loans.

This is clearly a deeply depressing scenario but we need to find ways to ‘snatch hope from the jaws of despair’ and develop a ‘pragmatic idealism’ as I have proposed in recent speeches and posts. Our response should include both judicious opposition and constructive proposition.

Before suggesting positive ways forward, it’s worth trying to understand how our context can affect us.

What can financial austerity do to us?

It can shrink our view of what can be achieved collectively, encourage us to see reduced public funding as reduced value for what we do. It can lead to impoverished ambition and limited horizons. It can make us feel powerless as we sink lower and lower. But it doesn’t have to.

What can marketization do to us?

It can force us to think as competing providers, to put institutional self-interest above educational aims and values, to see qualifications, learning and students themselves as market commodities with a price linked mainly to status and earning power. But it doesn’t have to.

A thought experiment

Think of your area and all the young people who live there with all the challenges they face and all the potential they represent. Think of all the post-16 providers with all the challenges they face, many of them to do with financial austerity and competition. What do you see? Do you see competing providers saying negative things about each other? Wasteful duplication? Inadequate information, advice and guidance? Big marketing budgets and overhyped claims of success? Courses closing because they are not attracting enough learners? Small sixth forms that can only survive if they are subsidised by pre-16 funding? Is any of this familiar?

Just imagine…

Now imagine that the area you’re thinking of being served by a system; a comprehensive post-16 education system. The same resources; staff, buildings and facilities, the same experience, expertise, ingenuity, commitment of everyone currently involved in post-16 education in the area, are effectively co-ordinated and put at the disposal of all the young people in a way which responds to their educational needs and aspirations. Courses, progression, advice, guidance, support, challenge and enrichment are planned putting the interests of all learners first. The potential of those learners is realised through education and applied in their community as they learn. People’s jobs; our jobs, my job, may have to change, we might have to share some of our precious territory and professionalism with others, but the system is serving students and society better. And we discover that system leadership can be so much more productive than institutional leadership.

Utopian? Perhaps. Sensible? Evidently. And if it’s possible to imagine a better way of doing things then it must be possible to start taking steps towards building it. But we won’t begin to conceive of a better system if we can’t imagine new kinds of partnership.

Reasons for optimism: building blocks and signs of hope

Despite the gloom, we can identify many of the fragments of a genuine system, plenty of signs of hope. Here are just a few:

  • The commitment and skill of our staff: Teachers want to teach and to contribute to an education system and teaching must be at the heart of what we do. Those of us who do anything other than teaching must make sure that what we do supports, encourages and develops teaching and creates the best possible conditions for success.
  • Our national organisations and our experience of working together: The lived experience and long standing habits of collaboration, often between competitors, within the Sixth Form College Association (SFCA) and the Association of Colleges (AoC) for example.
  • Hard and soft Federations and Trusts: new forms of governance and collaboration at national, regional and local level guided by a wish to meet the educational needs of a whole cohort.
  • Teaching School Alliances (TSA): we have just joined a local TSA and Maths Hub led by a primary school. TSAs can bring teachers together across all phases to do some really useful ‘vertical’ work on how we support learning from early childhood to university level. Imagine the potential of getting primary, secondary and post-16 teachers together to really tackle people’s numeracy and literacy challenges throughout the life-cycle.
  • The existence of elected regional authorities such as the Greater London Authority and proposed Greater Manchester city region: these offer the possibility of regional leadership and advocacy for a joined-up post-16 education strategy which can command the support of our communities and be accountable to them.
  • Our partner universities: which have the reach and capacity to help connect post-16 and adult education and support career-long teacher development. Networks like Linking London and their new Single Point of Contact (SPOC) can support more successful FE to HE progression.
  • The National Bacc: led by schools and colleges and driven by the perceived need for a challenging, inclusive, overarching 14-19 curriculum framework which driven by a definition of what the educated 19 year old should have learned and be able to do.
  • Teacher networks, Tutor Voice, Teach Meets and Action Research Communities: bringing teachers together to learn from each other and from research.
  • Social networks and new technologies: new kinds of virtual communities of practice and opportunities to blend face to face and on-line learning are also transforming the way teachers produce and share excellent ideas, materials and methods.
  • Our students themselves: who should not be seen as economically inactive recipients of education, sitting in adult society’s waiting room but as active learners and workers, making a positive contribution through their community organising, service learning and research.

What many of these signs of hope have in common is that they are bottom-up, horizontal, networked approaches which do not require centralised structures or the approval of politicians to develop. They can spread like rhizomes joining up different parts of our ecosystem. But, to overstretch the organic metaphor we do also need some system ‘gardening’ based on shared values and common organising principles if we want to see the strawberries ripen.

In summary

My main point is that I don’t think we should allow an austerity mindset to affect our imagination and our ambition as well as our spending power. If anything, our vision should expand just as our financial room for manoeuvre narrows. Have we got the courage and ingenuity to develop effective national, regional and local collaborative education systems which could help to realise the collaboration dividend? Can we marry our commitment to all learners and to high standards with radically new ways of doing things? I don’t think we have a choice.

So let’s reject the austerity of the imagination and the tyranny of the market and embrace the challenge of constructing a system from the bottom up.

Presentation to the UCL Institute of Education Post-compulsory Teacher Education Partnership Seminar on Wednesday 15th July 2015 organised by Jay Derrick.

Other related posts:

Snatching hope from the jaws of despair

For a pragmatic idealism

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About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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1 Response to No austerity of the imagination

  1. dancingprincesses says:

    Reblogged this on dancing princesses and commented:
    Interested in exploring some writing possibilities with you Eddie, sequel to FE & 12 Dancing Princesses in offing, based loosely around Machiavelli “The Prince” as metaphorical lens – I’m at if of interest


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