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How to create a self-improving system in FE - David Russell

25th November 2022

Trust.

Inspection.

Purpose.

These were the three most talked about issues when I interviewed over 50 teachers, leaders, thinkers and shapers from all across the FE system and beyond this year. My question was simple but hard: “what might be the features of a self-improving FE system?”

Everyone wanted to be working in such a system, but nobody said they currently were.

Everyone thought that trust was an essential missing ingredient, but nobody thought the mistrust lay with them.

Everyone felt that FE did so much more than we are measured on, but nobody wanted to propose new measures.

Above all, what was most striking about the 100+ hours of conversations I had with people across the system is the hunger that exists for exactly this type of conversation. Virtually nobody used it as an opportunity to complain about the woeful underfunding of FE – it’s so obviously a fact that it would be as useless as pointing out that it’s raining again outside. Very few people used it as an opportunity to rail against government policy – but that did not mean they liked it all. Instead, everyone seized the chance to talk about things they really care about, and rarely get to talk about. What is their purpose? How can they be better? How can they be part of a self-improving community?

I believe that this hunger needs to be fed. There are places where policy-makers meet sector leaders, places where politicians meet stakeholders, places where teachers meet each other. But there are no places where cross-disciplinary groups of teachers, leaders, policy-makers and academics converge to work together in good faith on the big issues in our system that need tackling. And that needs to change. This connectivity – call it social capital if you want, or call it community – is what our complex and splintered system is desperately lacking.

Because people that work together, succeed - or fail - together.

In summary, seven themes have slowly emerged as being the ones interviewees have returned to again and again. They are :

  • Trust within the system
  • How success is measured and how this aligns with the purpose of the system
  • Human relations within the system
  • The interplay between external and internal inspection and improvement work
  • The importance of reflective practitioners and learning organisations
  • Collectivism (especially with respect to shared challenges such as staff recruitment)
  • Comfort and vulnerability in a self-improving system

On my blogs on the ETF website, I discuss each of these in turn: what interviewees thought, and what big issues I think it raises for all of us working in the system.

There are another 14 clearly identifiable issues that came up more than once, but fewer than five times and a further 25 issues which came up only once. Some of these also seem powerful insights which deserve attention. Here is a taste of just one of them, but one close to my own heart:

One interviewee asserted that we have a “low-qualified teachers systems trap” in FE, where a combination of underfunding, providers’ strategic decisions and lack of regulatory requirements mean there are strong pressures on providers to hire cheap [and unqualified] teachers, and only weaker pressures on them to hire or create qualified teachers.

This is exacerbated by Ofsted declining to support any system-wide quality principles such as minimum professional standards for staff, and instead trusting solely in the accuracy of individual inspections as a one-club quality game.

Every other profession has a common-sense position that a minimum qualification standard (aka license to practise) is beneficial for pay, quality, collegiality and prestige, but FE is trapped in a race to the bottom where staffing is concerned, as long as the system metrics are satisfactory (i.e. achievement rates and Ofsted grade).

This feels like a very soluble problem to me. What do you think?

Follow me on LinkedIn to join the debates on the Self-Improving System: https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-russell-4bb05024/

For more detail about the findings from my Self-Improving System project, visit my blogspot at https://www.et-foundation.co.uk/blog/category/self-improving-system/

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.