Imagining a better future is the first step

My article on the post-16 area-based reviews from this week’s Times Education Supplement.

Think of all the 16-18 year olds in your area. What do you see? Talented and ambitious young people keen to improve their knowledge and skills? Students eager to make a positive contribution? Anxious consumers, uncertain about how to make the choices which will improve their chance of success?

Now consider all the post-16 provision in your area. What do you see? Cuts and reduced choice across every type of provision? Competing providers trying to attract students at each other’s expense? Patchy information, advice and guidance at 16? Wasteful duplication? Small sixth forms surviving only thanks to a subsidy from pre-16 funding?

Then imagine instead that your area is served by a comprehensive post-16 system. The same staff, buildings and facilities, the same expertise, ingenuity and commitment currently involved in post-16 education across the patch, but effectively co-ordinated and put at the disposal of all those young people in a way that responds to their needs and aspirations. Courses, teaching, materials, advice, guidance, support, challenge, enrichment and progression all planned to put learners’ interests first.

Utopian? Perhaps. Sensible? Certainly. And if it can be imagined it must be possible to take some steps towards it.

Sixth form education in England is in a very uncomfortable place right now. The financial austerity we face could easily shrink our view of what can be achieved and lead to impoverished ambition and limited horizons. It could make us feel powerless as we retrench further and further. The market context we work in makes us behave as competing providers, putting institutional self-interest above educational aims and seeing qualifications and students themselves as commodities whose value is linked to earning power. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Despite our troubles, we can see the elements of a better system all around us. These signs of hope include the commitment and expertise of our staff, our experience and appetite for collaboration, the possibilities of new types of partnership and governance at national, regional and local level, including hard and soft federations, trusts and Teaching School Alliances and of course our wonderful students, who are so much more than the passive recipients of education.

In Reviewing post-16 Education and Training Institutions published by the government last month, we are being offered the chance to help rethink our system from the bottom up – an opportunity which I believe we should grasp with alacrity.

The document proposes a new programme of Area-based Reviews of post-16 provision. This is very welcome if it means that all the appropriate agencies will work with post-16 providers and their local communities to take an objective view of local provision and agree on the best configuration using a range of criteria including quality, cost-effectiveness, geography and demand.

These reviews will need to draw on the imagination, system leadership and better instincts of all concerned and we will be expected to rise above institutional self-interest in order to build the best possible system for young people in our areas. Because the current pattern of provision is different in each area the outcomes will not be uniform.

One of the suggestions in the document is that we need ‘fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers’. The implication is that larger colleges are better placed to provide high quality, plan strategically and survive austerity in the medium term. If this is so, the point applies not just to colleges but to all 16-19 provision in an area. When the guidance on these reviews is published, it will be essential that school sixth forms are automatically considered as part of the local system. To leave them out would be a colossal missed opportunity. If some colleges are not cost-effective, this must also be true of many small school sixth forms. So if we want to invest cost-effectively in quality we have to review that provision which is most dispersed or least effective as well as that which is already successful or more efficient.

The document also seeks to encourage ‘greater specialisation in genuine centres of expertise’ while at the same time maintaining ‘broad universal access to high quality education and training for students of all abilities’. Squaring this circle may be easier with fewer colleges but doing it well requires the creation of inclusive, comprehensive local systems. Without this, the least qualified and most vulnerable young people are more likely to be overlooked or segregated.

We mustn’t allow an austerity mindset to affect our ambition as well as our spending power. If anything, our vision should broaden just as our financial room for manoeuvre narrows. Can we find the courage and ingenuity to develop effective national, regional and local collaborative systems and release the collaboration dividend? Can we marry our commitment to all learners and to high standards with radically new ways of doing things? Actually, I don’t think we have a choice.

We need to work with new partners, build new coalitions and create new structures. This means networking and federating at various levels, building on our strengths and experience. We also need to work with our stakeholders, elected politicians and the new Regional School Commissioners who are already using their strategic powers in parts of the post-16 system.

So let’s welcome these area reviews and engage with them from the outset. If they are comprehensive in scope and founded on educational criteria they could help us bring about positive and sustainable change. There is much at stake and we cannot afford to fail.

Published in the Times Education Supplement (TES) 21/08/15

See also:

What’s at stake in the new post-16 are-based reviews? (July 2015)

No austerity of the imagination (July 2015)

Snatching hope from the jaws of despair (June 2015)

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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2 Responses to Imagining a better future is the first step

  1. Ian Ashman says:

    Area reviews and a comprehensive review and restructuring and consolidation of post 16 provision would be both educationally and financially more effective. In addition, it could free up capacity in the 11-16 schools and academies, which is going to be much needed in many areas where numbers of children leaving primary schools are due to grow significantly in the coming years


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