Reporting in a changing landscape
I’m starting to recognise the tell-tale signs. The haunted look in the eyes. The nervous fidgeting. The short attention span. It’s not just area reviews that are spreading across the country. They are bringing with them anxiety and uncertainty. Whether I find myself talking to someone who works at a college, training provider, government agency or exam board, the fear seems to be growing. Beyond the Government’s stated ambition of ending up with a smaller number of more resilient and efficient colleges, no-one is quite sure what happens next. How many people in the further education sector can say, hand on heart, that they are confident that their current job title and employer will still exist in five year’s time? The Government has urged providers to cast aside “vested interests and personal preferences” and work for the “greater good”. The sector described is not one that I recognise. A more accurate description would be that people who have dedicated their careers to improving the life chances of others are naturally suspicious of reforms designed to save money. I’ve not heard anyone say that the current system is perfect, that there are no elements of FE that could be improved. But the fear is that the changes coming could make things worse, rather than better. At this crucial moment, it is vital to remember that FE does not have to be a sector that simply has things done to it. As Eddie Playfair, principal of Newham Sixth Form College, has eloquently pointed out, it’s time to seize the opportunity to make things better. Even if it may be suspicious of the motives behind the area reviews, the sector has the duty to its students to make the best of the situation that it can. I see TES as having an important role to play in this. In July, I was appointed TES’ first FE editor in seven years, and tasked with improving our coverage of the sector. It is our responsibility to report on the issues affecting the lives of the people working in the sector day in, day out. The funding announcements; the policy changes; the impact on providers trying to adapt to the ever-changing landscape. But just as the sector has diversified enormously, I passionately believe that our coverage must follow suit. I see our role as to shine a light on the corners of FE that deserve recognition, and highlight the genuinely game-changing innovation taking place across the country which, unfortunately, the country hears so little about. Alongside the announcements on cuts to Esol and the adult skills budget, we’ve shone a light on some of the most talented young professionals making a name for themselves in FE. We’ve featured some ingenious tips from Scott Hayden at Basingstoke College of Technology on how to make social media a tool for classroom innovation rather than a distraction. Patrice Miller, a lecturer in functional skills and GCSE English at Barking and Dagenham College, has explored ways of boosting the confidence of learners retaking their GCSEs. And Sarah Simons has extolled the amazing impact of the #ukfechat movement, made of up practitioners from across the country, which hosted an impressive inaugural national conference in London at the weekend. If the sector doesn’t shout about the amazing work it does, no-one else is going to. Yes, times are tough, but all you need to do is look at the amazing people working in colleges up and down the country to find plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. As the Association of Colleges President John Widdowson told TES when we profiled him last week, few politicians have first-hand experience of the amazing work colleges do. And, as he concluded: "We have to make sure they realise that we are not part of the problem, we are part of the solution." Stephen Exley is the Further Education Editor at The TES, the premier media partner for our Annual Conference and Exhibition.