Academisation: lessons from further education

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23 May 2016 by Janet Clark
Those interested in how the government’s academies programme might impact the school education system in years to come should take a look at the recent history of the FE sector for some clues.

Over 20 years ago, the then Conservative government decided to make FE colleges independent corporations. Prior to this, colleges were almost all maintained and managed by the local education authority, meeting demand from individuals and employers in their local area.<!--more-->

During the following years of Conservative government, it was required for there to be a minimum number of business members on college governing bodies. The intention was to bring ‘business thinking’ into the public sector. Sound familiar?

In contrast to school education, which has long been a political football and subject to the vagaries of the Secretary of State, there has not really ever been national plan or policy for FE. The reason for this is that the organic and local evolution of the further education sector has resulted in colleges developing unique characteristics.

The diversity of provision is reflected in the 1944 Education Act, which required LEAs to provide an ‘adequate’ level of service of further education, described as vocational and non-vocational provision for young people and adults in full-time or part-time attendance.’

Today, the student body within any FE college is just as diverse; from 14 year olds studying a combination of vocational and academic qualifications, to adults taking evening classes purely for their own enjoyment, and everything in between, including basic entry level courses, CPD, HE and apprenticeships. The complexity of and variations between colleges have made it particularly difficult for officials at the national level to understand and assess the overall sector.

Despite the differences between the school and the FE sectors, there are some remarkable similarities between college incorporation in 1992 and the academisation programme twenty years later. And as with incorporation then, academisation results in local authorities being taken out of the equation and a shift in control of education from local to central government.  So what lessons can the school system learn from over two decades of incorporated colleges?

From 1992, FE colleges were required to operate with a far greater degree of autonomy in a market for their services. Many colleges relished their autonomy, but there has been a growing concern that this has encouraged them to become businesses, rather than just be ‘business-like’.

Colleges, for example, are often criticised for spending money, which could otherwise been spent on teaching and learning, on glossy brochures and elaborate marketing campaigns to attract students within the FE marketplace.

Along with this enterprise mentality however, comes the risk of conflict with the FE sector’s public service ethos of providing open access to education and training to all sections of the community, no matter how unprofitable. It also risks college management teams becoming ever more concerned with seeking out diverse and innovative income generation streams, with the inevitable result that their eye is taken off the aims and aspirations of learners.

In addition, in the new FE marketplace, the incentive to share good practice and a strategic overview was lost, as some colleges seized the opportunity to go it alone.  This situation is likely to be replicated in autonomous academies and the demise of local authority support and networks.

And what of those colleges that fell by the wayside in this competitive field? A significant number of FE colleges are experiencing serious financial difficulties. Last summer, the National Audit Office (NAO) reported that the further education sector was "experiencing rapidly declining financial health".  Between autumn 2013 and summer 2015 the Further Education Commissioner had to intervene in 22 colleges because of financial problems.

Furthermore, the number of FE colleges in deficit more than doubled in two years, from 52 in 2010-11 to 110 in 2013-14.  As a result, a large number of mergers between FE colleges have taken place in recent years , in an attempt to shore up their finances, although with all the insecurity and turbulence that this brings for teachers and learners.

Admittedly FE colleges have faced substantial cuts to funding over the past five years, with adult learning budgets being slashed by up to 35%.  But with school funding now being reduced in real terms for the first time in 20 years, and the academies programme bringing a sense of déjà vu from the FE sector, will we see history repeating itself?

By Janet Clark, ATL Education Policy Adviser.