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Leaders need space today to ponder tomorrow’s big questions - Robin Webber - Jones

04 May 2023

Many of us working in further education and skills have seen and felt the impact of policy making. Reduced funding, qualification disorder, “quality” systems which seem to close conversations about effective pedagogies have been the norm for as long as I have been in the sector – and for some considerable time before then. Indeed, discourses in further and higher education have been driven by neoliberal models, and this has been accelerated since then prime minister Callaghan delivered a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976, which outlined a verdict on the previous three decades of education - a verdict that pronounced that governments between 1944 and 1976 had overseen an education system which was incapable of delivering high standards. The speech is noted for initiating the “Great Debate” about the role education should play in the economic development of the Country. It set the tone for education in subsequent years.

The marketised system we find ourselves in over four decades later is affecting working practices and professional integrity, because it lays constant emphasis on performance. It is against this backdrop that diminishing resources have affected the sector.

While I have seen and experienced the agility with which further education can respond to challenges, I am left perplexed at how this history has left providers, teachers and other practitioners to wrestle with the big issues of the day. Issues such as: how do changes to AI change the nature of the workforce?; what does a world with sustainable development look like?; how do we inculcate curiosity and encourage democratic participation in students?; what does work in an increasingly automated world mean?; do T Levels and HTQs prepare people for this? Without space and time to reflect on these questions the students of today will not provide fresh thinking to the problems of tomorrow. It is this potential in further education that is so often overlooked by policy makers I feel.

I think that Further Education needs to consider its long-term future, not based on the hindsight of previous policy making, but by applying foresighting techniques which can see 20 years into the future. While there are many definitions of what foresighting is, its power is summed up neatly by Johansen (2017, p18):

“Foresight, inevitably, links to hindsight. Think of hindsight as the banks of prior knowledge. Hindsight includes experience which can be a source of insight and burden. Hindsight can be a cognitive anchoring in the past, and it can be a stimulus for innovation. Hindsight can keep us from seeing futures we cannot imagine…..It is revealing that the word ‘history’ has the word ‘story’ embedded in it. Future research is, in a real sense, storytelling about the history of the future – the present that hasn’t happened yet.”

Foresighting is more than horizon scanning; it looks well beyond the horizon. It has been used in policy projects recently through the Government Office for Science (see Building on the work of the College of the Future, a foresighting approach may allow an empowerment of the sector where trust can be built with policy makers to change the discourse.

There are advantages that this could bring to the design of a new system:

  • Accountability and standards will improve (and should be present in any system involving public money). The role of multiple regulators, inspection bodies and processes needs questioning and their impact on improvement needs its own accountability framework. Twenty years from now, the sector cannot keep spending money on these regimes as it is now. It needs to create the “story” for its own improvement. Coffield (2017) argued that if Ofsted was to be inspected it would “require improvement” (he then suggests ways it could be improved). Sad and tragic recent news stories suggest that trust needs to develop in the way improvement systems work and the sector needs to create an optimistic way to do this.
  • The system of tertiary education could be better integrated. This means moving towards social capital models where networks of power relationships where there are trust. Moving money around the system (as has been suggested by Augar and others) will not change the system.
  • The “big questions” of our time will be considered in contexts of different pedagogies, not just in constructs like learning outcomes. Our teachers, trainers and assessors are responsible for how the future workforce will operate. Many individuals that enter our institutions are used to gaming (and using all the evaluative techniques that go with that) and accessing information in many different ways. The networks formed should allow practitioners to understand what is truth, how technology affects the future, and how culture and tradition should be respected in these contexts. Changing the discourse away from what Biesta (2015) calls the “learnification of society” should allow resources for teachers, trainer and assessors to metaphorically wrestle with these constructs so that students benefit from them.

Of course, all this requires money. However, the individuals we train are the workforce of today and tomorrow. If they are not equipped to respond to the world and if the skills system is not networked to planning, culture, energy, health, and many other policies the same issues of workforce development will persist. Today we are looking at what employers need from their colleges. The same was true in 1976. The time to determine a new track and policy discourse is surely upon us.


Avis J. (2009) Further Education; policy hysteria, competitiveness and performativity, British Journal of Sociology of Education 30:5, pp653-662.

Ball S J. (2013) The Education Debate (2nd Edition), The Policy Press, Bristol.

Biesta G. (2015) Good Education In An Age of Measurement, Taylor and Francis, London.

Coffield F. (2017) Will the Leopard Change Its Spots?: A New Model of Inspection for Ofsted, Institute of Education Press, UCL.

Johansson B. (2017) The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, Institute for the Future.

Jephcote M and Abbott A. (2006) Tinkering and Tailoring; the reform of 14-19 Education in England, 57:2 181-202.

Mason G. (2020) Higher Education, Initial Vocation Education and Training and Continuing Education and Training: Where Should the Balance Lie? Journal of Education and Work 33:7-8, pp 468-490.

Policy Making and Policy Learning in 14-19 Education (2007), Ed. Raffe D and Spours J. Bedford Way Papers, London.

Silverwood, J and Wolstencroft, P. (2023) The Ruskin Speech and Great Debate in English Education, 1976-1979: A Study of Motivation. British Educational Research Journal. DOI: 10.1002/berj.3868.

Starr, K. (2019) Education Policy. Neoliberalism, and Leadership Practice: a critical analysis, Routledge, London.

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