The crushed and trampled Further Education sector

Guest posts

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

19 July 2021

For decades the Further Education (FE) sector has been referred to as the ‘Cinderella’ sector due to a deep-rooted snobbery where it is seen as less prestigious than its stepsisters, schools and Higher Education (HE).

For over a decade FE has been ignored, underfunded and downtrodden, with no invitation to the policymaker’s ball. Policymakers continue to reaffirm FE’s place as a second chance provision, through policies that focus on mopping up underachievers from secondary school rather than true ambitious vocational education.

The latest example of this is the D grade policy. This policy dictates that it is mandatory for all learners aged 16-19 who have achieved a grade D/3 in GCSE maths and/or English to continue to resit until they achieve a grade C/4, the new accepted universal leveller, leaving many FE students trapped in a cycle of misery until they are released by their nineteenth birthday or reaching the accepted standard. They are silenced, disregarded and marginalised, where the pain is often not worth the prize. Imposing a compulsory GCSE resit policy on those who have failed to reach a grade C/4 embodies the memories of an old-fashioned, two-tier elitist system. It has no place in FE.

But does FE have a fairy godmother? Gavin Williamson, the current Education Minister has said, ‘The Future is Further Education’. This is a long-awaited narrative shift, but in reality, it has taken a global pandemic and the government desperately seeking solutions to an economic crisis, to notice the value and worth of FE. It is now up to FE to mend the heart of the nation and help the Covid recovery.

Learnings from 2020

Although more than one in three GCSE resit students made negative progress in 2019 and 2020, it is true that some students did achieve a grade C/4 in maths and/or English. In fact, in 2020 students made more progress than in any other year, why? In truth the year 2020 did something no one thought possible: it broke the ridged arthritic back bone of the schooling system. A system we had all been led to believe was unbreakable, and yet it too was struck down by COVID-19. The pandemic left policymakers and educators scrambling around in the dark, forcing them to quickly drop GCSE exams and trust teachers. They had to embrace other forms of assessment and new ways of teaching.

In truth, the individual dark screens that used to be students faces are now unyielding barriers to learning. How do GCSE English teachers in FE get students to engage with maths and English ‘as is’ now and post pandemic? We are currently in uncharted waters, and it is imperative that we embrace this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to discover new worlds. Teaching during this pandemic has humanised teachers, it has revealed them as ‘real’ people sat in their homes just like the students. That is incredibly powerful. It has given teachers and students a chance more than ever to build learning together, to collaborate, be co-producers and true co-agents of learning.

We are all making history, building the plane as we are learning to fly. We all must take this opportunity to learn and reflect on the last year. We should consider what we can do to improve teaching, learning and assessment for all students. We can and should look towards an agile, modernised curriculum and approach to teaching, learning and assessment. Now is the time for change, let’s all hope there is a true happy ever after.

We need more research!

There is an important need for schools, FE and HE to unite for an equal shared knowledge exchange and experiences and research is vital. That research should transcend beyond the general understanding and importance of FE but give subject specialist research the platform it deserves. FE remains the Cinderella sector and is sadly underrepresented within academic research, especially in English.

My own doctoral research barely begins to fill the void. Further research needs to be carried out to demonstrate that the lack of achievement in maths and English in FE is not best addressed by compulsory GCSE resits and such a finding would justify requests for a viable alternative to be proposed, one with the full support of the sector.

It is important that academics in HE support the FE sector. More researchers who are native to FE with instinctive empathies and informed understanding of the lived experience should challenge any theory, practice and/or policy that they feel is detrimental to students’ learning.

Dr Jo Bowser-Angermann

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