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What’s it all about, FE? - Ian Pryce

30 November 2023

By Ian Pryce, chief executive of the Bedford College Group

Further education is more prominent in government thinking than at any time since incorporation. To me, this coincides with a degradation in what is seen as our purpose, begging the debate: what is FE all about?

For me, education is a moral enterprise and, as with the study of ethics, really focuses on two things, first emphasised by Socrates:

  • What is a good life? And how do we help people flourish?
  • What are our obligations to others? (humans, animals, planet)

At present, the loudest voices talk of putting “employers at the centre”, bemoan too many young people going to university, or studying things that don’t generate an economic return. This employer-centric view assumes links between education and growth that simply don’t exist. As Alison Wolf says: “education does not deliver economic growth the way our politicians and businessmen believe. More education in, does not mean more growth out. Worse, the education policies that follow from current beliefs have serious negative consequences for young people and the quality of education itself”.

This view reinforces an idea that education should only be provided for a narrow end, anything above that is wasted, a “just-in-time” approach to learning.

It fails the ethical tests, too. We know that expertise, knowledge and work give us a sense of worth, but does this narrow approach help us flourish? Does it only see our obligations in terms of economics? It also preserves social immobility and power imbalances, and keeps people “in their lane”.

So, should we turn to the other extreme, and propose education that is individual-centred?

There is a Japanese anime character, MeMeMe, as selfish as her name suggests. She aims to destroy someone’s mind, and is celebrated for preventing another character from escaping addiction, making him fall into eternal loneliness.

Superficially, an individual-centred approach sounds right. As with the argument for tax cuts – people make better spending decisions – people probably do know best what they need to learn to succeed in life. After all, companies rarely last 30 years, humans tend to last 80 years, and the average company is now the size of the average family. Also, our personal goals are more complex than an employer’s, so personal choice is surely better? Finally, we tend to be better-motivated if we want something for ourselves.

However, motivation may be in short supply, we often make bad choices in the absence of good guidance, the better-connected probably have access to better opportunity and advice, perpetuating inequality. In addition, it ignores the ethical test of obligation, and does not guarantee an individual flourishes in a good way, as MeMeMe shows.

So, can we find some middle ground that does pass the two ethical tests? At our college, we agreed that when our students leave, we want them to be described as:

“Expert and skilled in their subject; resilient, reliable, caring, well-mannered, articulate and fully rounded individuals; good citizens able to take control of their destiny and able to navigate the world confidently”

We work back from this when developing our programmes. It measures up well against the ethical tests. Skills, expertise and reliability chime well with a flourishing economy; resilience, confidence, roundedness, and being articulate allow for a flourishing individual; caring and good citizenship speak to the obligations we have to others.

As a group we then reinforce our overall obligation through our mantra of “the community drives the curriculum, drives the people, drives the money, never the reverse”.

Of course, we recognise not all learners share that view. Those without work may simply want skills to get a job. For others, education is transactional – to learn to drive, speak Welsh, or swim. We accept purposes are manifold.

So where can the sector’s researchers help us advance this broader purpose?

First, recognise that research cannot answer some questions. Do we want British values to instil patriotism or understand the way the country works? What are the aims of character development? These are political or institutional decisions.

Second, build on what we already know. The EEF has strong evidence of the impact versus cost of many educational strategies, that could easily be tested post-16.

Third, solve big issues. Too often, our research is small scale, and too reliant on what people say works, so my challenge would be to think big, and look at what actually works. 1.7 million students allow that. Inside our college, these are just some of the questions we posed:

  • Research tells us the importance of parents, friends and data. How should we change our relationships with each to reflect that research?
  • We know (class) size doesn’t matter but sleep does, so how should we change timetables and groupings?
  • Should we teach people to fit in, rather than change the world to fit them?
  • It is easier to change the environment than rely on willpower (easier to lose weight if you have no biscuits in the house, rather than try to resist them) so does that help on policies around mobile phones or missing sessions?
  • How do you build resilience?
  • Why do tertiary colleges get better Ofsteds than general FE? Are there lessons for us?
  • Is there a perfect session length?
  • Why are we so obsessed with entry criteria if attendance is a better indicator of success?
  • Is work experience useful if most students don’t end up in their field, and most students are already part-time employees?

Researchers get satisfaction and prestige from unlocking secrets that help people and regions flourish socially and economically. Even better, you will achieve celebrity status. This summer’s blockbuster Oppenheimer has made research box office, so enjoy the limelight and flourish personally.

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