‘We’re in the same storm but not the same boat’: lessons for the future from our FE Rapid Evidence Review

The UK’s Further Education colleges offer provision for the more deprived sections of society, and specialise in preparing young people for working life. Both have been badly hit by the pandemic – so what should an inclusive response look like for this sector?

  • Read the full IPPO Rapid Evidence Review on Further Education here

Ken Spours and Paul Grainger

‘There will be a K-shaped recovery with winners and losers: we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat.’ (FE college leader)

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in the globalised world. In terms of a health emergency, there has been nothing on this scale since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1919 – and we now live in a much more connected world, of course, that is also experiencing an even greater threat from the climate emergency.

The pandemic bears all the symptoms of a wicked problem, due to our incomplete knowledge of its effects and interdependencies as it impacts on a vulnerable Further Education (FE) sector. The UK’s FE colleges include provision for the more deprived sections of the community, and specialise in preparing young people for working life. Both aspects have been badly hit by COVID-19.

The academic-vocational divide

Our research found that COVID harms have closely mirrored the key features of the sector, including:

  • Vocational disruption for young people, with severe downturns in participation in ‘licence to practise’ activities (for example, securing qualifications relating to gas and electrical safety) and apprenticeships.
  • Impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of young people, with particular concerns about the changing economy and their ‘personal futures’.
  • Increasing inequalities affecting a growing number of hard-to-access young people, including those Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs), amid rising youth unemployment – particularly for young people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
  • Pressures on FE colleges as existing vocational cohorts that had experienced delays in practical assessments have collided with new intakes.

The pandemic also laid bare the academic-vocational divide. While all forms of learning were disrupted, those taking GCSEs and A-levels could at least benefit from teacher assessment and online learning (although evidence suggests that learners from disadvantaged backgrounds missed out most on the discipline and support of face-to-face tuition).

Many young people on practical vocational courses (for example, construction-related courses such as bricklaying, plastering and plumbing, vehicle maintenance, beauty and hairdressing), on the other hand, simply saw their training and assessment suspended.

Complex problems require multi-faceted solutions

The complex nature of the challenges, combined with the relatively under-researched nature of the FE sector, suggested the need for a diverse research approach. We therefore decided to supplement rapid review methodology with interviews with key sector actors, a brief survey of the learner voice, and deliberations from T20 international discussions on disruptions to vocational learning. Together, these provided insights into both COVID harms and potential mitigations.

Complex problems also require multi-faceted solutions – an argument backed up by evidence both from the FE sector and our survey of relevant systematic reviews. Key actors in Further Education have broadly welcomed short-term government measures during the pandemic – notably, additional funding for colleges, flexibility around assessment, and the Kickstart work placement scheme. The priority now must be catch-up for practical skills, and repairs to the apprenticeship system.

However, a pressing question concerns longer-term plans for economic and skills recovery – a situation made more acute by the effects of Brexit on labour supply. Civil society organisations have called for local and sub-regional economic recovery plans not only to make good their skilled labour shortages, but also to build sustainable local economies. There have also been calls for a guarantee for all young people and adults to be offered training provision – what has been termed a ‘Youth Guarantee’ is now policy in Scotland and Wales.

Consistent evidence for mitigations

Evidence from systematic reviews and evaluations of previous job placement schemes added a different but complementary dimension. They provided consistent evidence of potentially transferable mitigations focused on:

  • targeted investment in vulnerable groups;
  • significant incentives for employers to expand work-based learning and, in particular, apprenticeships;
  • joined-up, collaborative multi-agency interventions at both regional and local levels that bring together job placements;
  • relevant careers education and guidance;
  • one-to-one support for vulnerable learners; and
  • additional learning opportunities – for example, in the form of summer schools.

There is also evidence of the benefits of joined-up services leading to personalised support packages.

At the same time, sustained institutional strategies will prove to be very important: FE/sixth-form colleges and independent work-based learning providers are the first line of contact with learners and, therefore, the main vehicles through which policy is enacted and resources allocated.

Evidence thus far, supported by our key interviews, is that the sector is proving to be responsive and resilient but stressed. Unsurprisingly, sustained funding and support for a stretched workforce are key.

Building back better?

Despite all the good will and effort to respond to this unprecedented crisis, the fact remains that the continuing pandemic is laying bare existing inequalities in society. The opening comment from an FE principal about being ‘in the same storm but different boats’ cuts to the very centre of the challenges facing our Further Education colleges.

If this sector is to play its full role in a comprehensive recovery plan, then the policy emphasis not only has to be on supporting the skills of young people and adults, but on addressing the deeper issue of poverty.

Professor Ken Spours and Paul Grainger are based in the Department of Education, Practice & Society at the UCL Institute of Education. Read their full IPPO Rapid Evidence Review here