Reforming teaching qualifications in lifelong learning

I’ve just completed a survey on the proposed new structure of teaching qualifications in further education in England. Following a review led by Lord Lingfield, government is now consulting on a number of proposals, including suggestions for new generic teaching qualifications and a number of specialist areas such as literacy, numeracy, ESOL and learning disabilities.

I rather like some of the reforms. These include new qualifications at Level 3 (roughly equivalent to A-Levels) and Level 4 (roughly equivalent to first year undergraduate) as well as a new Diploma at Leven 7 (roughly equivalent to the level expected in a Masters’ degree). The first two levels would, as I see it, give a staged progression route for those who are entering teaching and developing a career in further education, while the Level 7 Diploma would support staff working in higher education, along with those who teach on the teaching qualifications.

So in general, my responses to the proposals were very positive, with one exception. Government is proposing that the new Level 5 Diploma should comprise 60 credits – half of the previous level in England (though it is the same as the Teaching Qualification in FE in Scotland). Because of this reduction, the new Diploma will concentrate on ‘core knowledge and skills’, with no scope for specialist credit, or for much in the way of an underpinning understanding of learning and its contexts. In spite of this change, it hopes that the Diploma will be recognised as equivalent to the current Certificate in Education.

I have three main concerns about the L5 Diploma. At the simplest level, that of perception, there is a strong likelihood that it will be derided as ‘Mickey Mouse’. This term is such a cliche, but it will be damaging nevertheless, not least to the morale of those who earn a Diploma and are then ridiculed in the staff room.

More seriously, the English qualification will look both narrow and weak when compared with parallel qualifications. It will look thin in comparison with the qualifications typically held by school teachers or early years teachers, and this will limit its’ holders status and careers.

It will also look a bit under-cooked in comparison with other European countries. Teachers in German Berufschulen, for instance, must first either work for a substabntial period in their profession or complete a nine-semester programme in a university, specialising in two subjects along with education. Both groups then enter a specialist institution for three or four semesters of practical training. I find this excessive, but we can easily guess which group of teachers – German and English – enjoys the higher standing in their respective countries.

Worse still, the L5 Diploma would lead to a focus on compliance with core standards, with little opportunity for either breadth or specialisation. Given the diversity of the sector and its students, and the rather dispersed and fragmented nature of the profession, this strikes me as highly damaging.

All of that said, some of the reforms are likely to prove popular, and should help improve the experiences of people trying to enter further education teaching as a career. What happens after they have entered it will largely depend on how the sector develops in the next few years.


The LSIS survey is at

Pete Caldwell of the WEA has written an interesting blog on the reforms as seen from an adult educator’s perspective:

How should colleges handle the media?

I’ve always thought of the Observer, like its sister the Guardian, as a newspaper that understands further education. While most of the press seem mildly baffled by colleges, devoting all their education coverage to schools and universities, the Guardian and Observer provide regular reports on adult education, apprenticeships, vocational training, literacy learning and overall policy for the sector. In short, both papers get the point of FE.

But now they seem to have decided that their readers prefer a more elitist approach. The Guardian’s coverage of FE has dropped noticeably over the last couple of years, while the cash-strapped Observer now confines its coverage to the occasional headline story about dodgy apprenticeship schemes. Last Sunday, the Observer carried a good, old-fashioned college-bashing story of the kind that I expect from the Express or Daily Mail.

Kevin McKenna, the Observer’s Scottish columnist, last week turned his attention to the increasingly surreal topic of the Scottish Government’s policy towards colleges. This is a fitting topic for serious journalistic debate: the government has slashed college budgets to pay for university tuition fees, leading to the demolition of part-time provision and the collapse of participation, and the relevant minister appears to be either incompetent or dishonest or extremely forgetful. Quite a story.

McKenna kicked off with the story of Stow College and the infamous “spy pen”, about which I blogged last week. Like most non-specialist journalists, he was quick to show that his understanding of the sector is limited. Kirk Ramsay, who resigned as chair of the Stow College board amidst accusations of government bullying, was as ‘a mildly bumptious and self-important academic’. As anyone who knows the sector will be aware,college boards are typically chaired by one of their lay members; a trained engineer, Ramsay has had a number of jobs but became prominent as the chief executive of a well-known Glasgow visitor centre.

McKenna then proposed – guess what – cuts in the college budget. Or rather, he wanted more colleges closed, and less spent on ‘HNDs in tattoos and tarot cards or landscape herbology’. Colleges serve politicians as ‘a methadone substitute for the dole queue’, while civil servants are merely ‘shoehorning our young people into college courses to meet the fatuous 50% target’. And just in case you still thought anyone involved had good intentions, McKenna puts them right: those who run colleges are motivated by ‘pension pots, early retirement packages and sick payments’.

It’d be easy to dismiss McKenna as a right wing nut job, Melanie Phillips on Buckfast. He employs all the usual lazy stereotypes, and seems someone who never knowingly lets facts obstruct hyperbole. But McKenna is one of the few Scottish commentators who attacks poverty and inequality as though he means in. In one of Europe’s most sharply unequal nations, he regularly savages a political class that views injustice as an occasion for a quote from Burns before turning its back on massive inequalities of health, income, and education.

So if McKenna shows neither knowledge nor understanding of the sector, we should be on the alert. Fewer and fewer media organisations are able to employ specialist reporters, and their education correspondents believe – probably rightly – that their readers are more interested in schools and universities than colleges. I have no idea how many journalists attended colleges as students, rather than universities, but I guess that they are rarer than non-Etonians in the Tory leadership. So unless colleges think much more creatively about how the sector is reported and presented in the media, we can expect more silly stories about frivolous college courses in the future.

The reality, as economists like David Blanchflower and David Bell have argued repeatedly, is that getting young people on college courses is hugely preferable to unemployment. Rather than tarot reading, colleges help train the plumbers, electricians, child care workers, car mechanics, accountants, drivers and bricklayers that help bumptious citizens like McKenna and me to lead our comfortable lives, and provide the workforce for tomorrow’s enterprises. They cater for students with every kind of disability imaginable, and provide a second chance for youngsters whose experience in our schools was not world class. Until two years ago, they also provided part-time education for tens of thousands of adults.

Colleges provide a service, but their role is poorly understood, and they have not always been well-represented by their professional bodies. That’s probably why the Scottish Government thought they presented a nice, non-contentious opportunity for budget cuts. In a media culture that is ferociously competitive, increasingly unstable, and ever more shaped by digital media, how should those concerned with lifelong learning be telling their learners’ stories?

I know where I would start: by inviting McKenna to visit one of the institutions he has lampooned, somewhere like Forth Valley College, where he can meet some of the people who are learning the things he so despises. I think he’ll find himself both chastened and enthused.

Politicians and colleges – the question of governance

Colleges in Scotland are having a pretty tough time. Government has imposed huge cuts in their teaching and capital budgets, and is pressing them hard to achieve significant savings through mergers and other economy measures. Not surprisingly, relationships between government and colleges have been rather frosty recently. But they have taken a new turn for the worse in the last fortnight, with the chair of one Glasgow college claiming that the Education Secretary effectively forced him to resign.

The basic facts of the dispute are accepted by both sides. Kirk Ramsay, chair of the Stow College board, attended a meeting for senior staff and board members, and recorded a speech by Mike Russell, the minister responsible for education. Ramsay then circulated the recording to other colleagues in Glasgow, and was called in to see the minister, who took the view that no “secret recording” should have been made, let along circulated. Ramsay meanwhile claims that the meeting was hardly secret, and that he wanted an accurate record of the speech.

What happened when Russell met Ramsay is not entirely clear; but the minister subsequently wrote to all colleges suggesting that Ramsay’s behaviour was incompatible with senior office, an allegation repeated publicly throughout last week. Anyone interested in the details can read the accounts in the Glasgow-based Herald. And the question of whether politicians’ speeches (or my lectures) should be taped is also not what concerns me right now. I’m more interested in the light that this episode sheds on the governance of Scotland’s system of further and higher education.

In principle, Scotland’s colleges are independent bodies. They are governed through boards whose members are appointed by the existing board; at least half must come from outside the college. But each college is largely funded by the Scottish Funding Council, an ‘arm’s length’ body whose governing body is also appointed by the Scottish Government, which also supplies its budget and sets its broad strategy goals. The row over Kirk Ramsay’s behaviour must lead many people to ask whether the Scottish Government is now exercising a stronger control over the sector than has previously been the case.

I put the question partly because there is a back story to the row. The Scottish Government has asked the SFC to take forward a process of college mergers, and Stow College has refused to play ball. Moreover, some will spot party politics at work. The Nationalist Party controls the government; but it also controls most of the committees by which the Scottish Parliament is supposed to hold ministers to account. Unsurprisingly, the convener of the education committee has refused to debate the issue, even – entirely absurdly, given the size of the fatal instrument – claiming that Ramsay used a “spy pen” to record the minister’s speech.

This aspect of the story should concern anyone interested in the autonomy of Scotland’s universities and colleges. Beyond that, we might also wonder how the row will affect wider views of the sector. Will colleges find vigorous and independent-minded individuals to join their boards, or will they instead settle for sockpuppets who voice a script provided by the government of the day? And how will the row affect the morale and behaviour of staff and managers in the colleges? Will they be able to take decisions on the best interests of learners and their college, or will they feel obliged to keep misgivings to themselves?

To avoid stupid decisions and generate innovation, whether in colleges or universities, we need independent voices who can put difficult questions at an early stage in any debate and are confident in expressing awkward ideas and new proposals. People, in other words, who are a bit like Mike Russell when he isn’t being a minister. Any organisation that is run by compliant governors, frightened managers and cowed staff are unlikely to be particularly effective.

Apprenticeships: hats off to the stubborn geeks

What a mess we’ve made of apprenticeships. The Select Committee on Business, Industry and Skills  found that a sizeable minority of apprentices receive no training whatsoever; the system is riddled with conflicts of interest, often unreported and largely unresolved; profit levels appear to be inflated by government grants; some employers simply badge existing training as an apprenticeship in order to claim funding; the system involves de facto age discrimination, with no apparent rationale, as well as gender discrimination in some trades. Worse, the uneven quality of training has damaged public perceptions of apprenticeship schemes in general.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the online debate over the last two year. But it should do. If you relied on mainstream press and broadcasting media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that apprenticeships were something from the past, inherited from the medieval craft guilds, and unsuited to a dynamic modern economy.

And it is true that the apprenticeship system that operated until the 1980s was flawed. Lads followed dads, excluding many women and immigrants; whether a particular craft was included or not was often a matter of historical accident (and workforce gendering); and craft status often became a pawn in collective bargaining, bedding rigidities into a system that should indeed have been modernised as industry and skills requirements changed.

But instead of modernising apprenticeships, the Thatcher government chose to smash them. In place of backward-looking, time-served, tripartite apprenticeships it promoted the go-ahead standards-based competency model of the National Vocational Qualifications system. Apprenticeship systems survived in small pockets, but for the most part they vanished as employers took advantage of the economic and policy climate to replace them with short, cheap training schemes.

By contrast, a number of other European countries opted to try and modernise their apprenticeship systems. They retained the principle of social partnership, seeking to work out the problems of modernisation through consultation and negotiation. And they tried to introduce new forms of apprenticeship to match the new, flexible forms of work practices that were required for European industry to survive.

The result was by no means perfect. Gender segregation often survived, with young women dominating apprenticeships in traditional female areas and males dominating in engineering and IT. Flexibility was sometimes insufficiently developed, as shown most notably in Germany’s attempt to impose a (western) model of apprenticeship on the very different labour market of the former East Germany. It is still far too difficult for adults to upskill or reskill through modified apprenticeship schemes.

But these were and are seen as reasons for reforming a high quality pathway to highly skilled labour. Hilary Steedman’s report for the International Labour Organisation identifies a number of features of successful apprenticeship schemes that, she shows, have helped reduce youth unemployment and maintain labour quality.

But what interests me particularly is that none of this is new. Campaigners and researchers have blogged repeatedly on the topic, and there has been sustained coverage in the redoubtable FE Week, a small, new, specialist magazine. Academics like Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller have written and spoken about the policy flaws. Think tanks and the National Audit Office got involved. And while trade unions have generally been quiet, individuals like Tom Wilson of UnionLearn have raised tough questions about the treatment of this particularly vulnerable group of workers.

Yet the mainstream press has had little to say about what appears to be another sorry chapter in the long story of Britain’s problem with vocational skills. Hats off, then, to the handful of stubborn geeky buggers who have worked hard to raise concern over what is obviously an important issue, but not sexy, fashionable or high status enough.

Now we move on to the much tougher task of building an apprenticeship system that is fit for purpose. The Select Committee’s recommendations cover eight pages. So far the Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, has issued a bland statement affirming the value of apprenticeships and promising to look at improvements. FE Week will no doubt be watching.

Hilary Steedman’s report for the ILO is at:—ed_emp/—ifp_skills/documents/genericdocument/wcms_190188.pdf

The Select Committee’s report is at: