Further Education: Driven by Targets or Target Driven?

Further Education & Training: Driven by Targets or Target Driven?

 

The UK spending review 2010 was the first act in a then new conservative/Liberal democrat coalition to redress the fiscal deficit accrued due to the banking crash of 2008 and the unsustainable overspending by the New Labour government (HM Treasury:2010) expenditure for FE was reduced to 2007 levels using the vehicle of accountability, fairness and the drive to increase standards not only in the education sector but across all government departments (Browne review: 2010; HM Treasury: 2010) 

 

The spending review 2010 brought about  strategic and structural changes to the FE sector that had the explicit aim to increase achievement and overall standards in the sector by continuing and even accelerating the market reforms of education ( Skills funding agency:2011) as direct consequence of the funding cuts and the ideological realignment of the sector to a more progressive reform agenda (Osbourne: 2009) funding initiatives such as funding for ESOL and the education maintenance allowance (EMA) has been abolished, the funding formula for colleges has been altered and the train to gain scheme has been rebranded as the small to medium enterprise apprenticeship. The balance of power is being purposely decentralised in favour of the institution. (Beck: 2008; Watters: 2007) 

 

The question of the effects of the policy of cuts to FE sector must have a multidimensional answer due to its wide-ranging effects. The cuts by themselves should not be analysed on its own merit, the ideological undercurrent must be examined too in order to ascertain how the cuts are likely to impact the organisational structure of the institution, the professional identity of the teacher and how they fit in with the new fiscal realities and ideological shifts. Not least, the moral and ethical impacts of the new funding realities on the learner, local communities and the wider economy. 

 

 

The Beginning: The Spending Review

 

Research examining the effects of the spending review on the FE sector is scarce. A reason for this finding could be due to the short amount of time between the spending review, and the implementation of the policy. This could indicate that sufficient time has not elapsed to fully elucidate the effects of the funding cuts.  An increasing amount of research has focused on the modernisation and adoption of marketisation of the education system in an era of reduced funding . Steer et al: 2007 examines the use of funding as a mechanism to “steer ” educational policy to meet the government’s own ends. With funding not being available to the institution should their aims not meet the governments aims. Their research seeks to unpick the effect of policy steering on the institution and adequately ties this in with the adoption of modernisation in the FE sector. They go on to suggest that institutions that fall in line with their policy receive the highest funding and an “arm’s length” approach to governance. This would seem to be at odds with the idea and ideals of a neo liberalist educational policy and therein lay the tensions between funding, the institution and the state.  Steer et al: 2007 has suggested that funding of FE is dependent on compliance with a policy set by the state in order to garner the desired funding with the added carrot of an arm’s length regulatory system upon compliance. However, Bonal:2003 tries to make the connection between the external economic and global position of the UK and the competitive market forces that govern the UK’s and other countries relationship to the transformation of what Bonal calls the “internal educational market”. Bonal states that a contradiction exists or has existed where the country as a whole takes part in neoliberal market and that quite often the internal structures i.e educational policy and other departments lag behind in reform that would match the external economic environment.

 

The Impact of the Financial Crash on Further Education

 

As the age of austerity bites and bites hard on the UK the traditional form of social welfare system and current funding arrangements will come up against a buffer of realism that could force reform to accommodate the decreased fiscal clout of the UK (Bonal:2003)The research by Bonal:2003 does document accurately how changes in the global picture affect education policy which translates into the distribution of resources and funds available for education. Bonal’s work does not comment on the effect of politic on educational policy or the realities of underfunding or the effect of half committed market reform changes which closely reflects the reality in the UK. The FE sector exists in a funding reform halfway house with certain commentators espousing free market reform (Osbourne:2009) whilst the realities are that funding policies are “steered” from  the top down with the institution expected to invoke market reform from the down up and therein lies the conflict and confusion surrounding FE funding. 

 

Other commentators seem to increasingly link the funding of the FE sector with the flow of market reforms from one government and ideology to the next (Stoten:2011; Avis:2009; Steer et al:2007) therefore it would be prudent to examine the ideological currents in order to measure the policy shifts in educational funding as they seem to be inextricably linked.  

 

 

What about the Front line?

 

The front line - Further education reform

This paper takes the frontline to mean the level of the teacher and learner. And what about the teacher and learner? Within the maelstrom that is FE funding sits the teacher and learner or the frontline. Just how are the cuts in funding from the review effecting them? Researchers such as Coffield et al:2007 have examined the effect of funding determined parameters such as achievement and retention and how the fits in with the financial priorities of the institution, the demands of the policy, lack of resources and their duties to the learner. Stoten et al:(2011) and Edward et al: (2007) examine this very concept.

 

Both Stoten and Edward’s work, whilst providing some insights into a teachers changing pedagogy along with the changing relationships between teachers and the managers within an institution as a result of funding initiatives. However, the research by Stoten et al: (2011) did not have a large enough sample size for it to  be truly representative of the views across the FE sector. Furthermore,  Stoten et al  had only examined a sample size of seven further education establishments who were chosen based on available demographic data that were to represent a cross section of society.

 

An argument can be made that demographic data may not be the best selection criteria to analyse the effects of funding policies on the  organisational structure and a teachers professional identity (Forrest et al:2004) Forrest et al: (2004) suggest that there could be differences in the organisational structure of an institution regardless of its demographics. This would suggest that Stoten et al: (2011) would either need to increase the sample size to include many more institutions or change the process of selecting the institutions. By using this method the relationship between; funding and organisational structure, funding and demographics and also funding and policy initiatives can be ascertained and elucidated at a greater statistical significance. 

 

Target Driven Funding: The Right Approach?

 

The link between the funding of the FE sector and the means by which it is delivered has been established (targets, retention, achievement) (Finlay:2007) so too has the link between funding and reform. To begin to fully understand the how the funding cuts to the FE sector are affecting their organisational structures and also the frontline, it would be beneficial to begin with an historical overview that has led to the spending review 2010. 

 

Reform in Further Education

 

The education reform act: 1988 was essentially the starting point for the transformation of both the compulsory and FE sectors in England (Strain et al: 2008) It sets out a blue print for the decentralisation of power from the state to the institutions giving them much more responsibility for their own budgets and curriculum’s. The education reform act was derived from the 1977 education green paper that attempted to raise the standards in education (Education reform act: 1988) The act attempted to get the FE sector to create links with local businesses. A comment can be made that  the education reform act and the further and higher education reform act (1992) were the starting guns for the decentralisation and the introduction of new public management reforms to the FE sector that will affect how it is funded. 

 

How Government Targets for the Sector are Set

 

Both the education reform act (1988) and the further and higher education reform act (1992) state that the secretary of state sets the national targets for the FE sector. Here in lies the seed of the problem that is being currently felt due to spending review facilitated cuts. The FE sector has a funding formula that is set through achievement and retention rates (Finlay:2007) The reform acts seeks to decentralise power and at the same time centralise power.  

In essence colleges have the illusion of increased competition and a more student led funding arrangement through market reforms but the state sets the targets and therefore allocation of funds. This is the mirror opposite of what a neoliberalist new public management agenda should be (Thorsen et al: 2010) There is scope for the political elite to use targets for their own political ends and therefore play politic with FE through the funding mechanisms. This relationship does not occur in any other free market sector. It would seem that full market reform of the FE sector with the sector fully responsible for their own targets was and is a risky political gamble too far.  

 

As early as 2009 the then shadow chancellor of the exchequer George Osbourne set out his policy in a speech articulating his educational reforms in a time of austerity. In retrospect his speech was a harbinger of the scale of cuts to come.  

 

In light of the spending review, what has the effect been on the frontline? In a word, the teachers at the sharp end of the cuts have been forced to reassess their priorities (Coffield et al: 2007) Popham et al: 2001 suggested that teaching to the test was a prevalent feature of the education system even at a time of relative economic prosperity. This is a symptom of the targets driven funding system. One could extrapolate those findings into today’s educational climate and deduce that the cuts could cause teachers in the FE sector to teach to the test in order to meet the financial constraints placed upon them. This can pose a moral dilemma for the teacher: a choice between doing the right thing for the student and developing their potential  against the reality that if they do not “teach to the test” their very institution and even job could be at risk.  

 

The Problem and the Solution

 

The FE funding formula comprises of four main targets that dictate the allocation of funds; The number of students, business or employer engagement, achievement/success rates and the frequency of teachers with the relevant teaching qualification (Learning and skills council:2002; cited in Steer et al:2007) 

 

An unintended consequence of the targets could be that colleges feel under pressure to enter students onto additional qualifications in order to increase the level of funding that they received (Leney et al: 1998; Cited in Steer et al: 2007) The policy of fiscal austerity in FE could lead to an increased incidence of this occurring. However, can the institutions be blamed for taking this approach to their own funding? In short, the answer is no. The centralised nature of “funding for targets” leaves scant room for the real issue of FE and that is the student learning experience.  

 

The spending review: 2010 also has an impact on the organisational structure of an institution (Steer et al: 2007; Coffield et al: 2007; Watters: 2007) The new  public management reforms in the FE sector has led to the a sea change in the leadership and organisational structure. Principals and line managers are now responsible for the interpretation and implementation of government policy (Steer et al: 2007) The spending review preceded the Browne review: 2010. The Browne review realigns the state – institution relationship by redefining the funding arrangements for FE again.  

 

There is a significant sum that is not being collected from students or employers for the cost of their qualification. (Browne review: 2010) the review goes on to suggest that FE and skills be paid for on an equal basis between the state, learner and employers. Funding for a level three qualification for students 24 and over has been abolished. Similarly, funding for the first level 2 qualification has also been abolished  (IFL: 2012) This runs counter to the aims of increasing skills in the UK for economic benefit and social mobility.  

 

The Wider Societal and Philosophical Impact of Policy

 

By abolishing the provision for a free first level 2 & 3 qualification could lead to those in society from a lower socio- economic background  missing out on an opportunity to gain skills and increase their chances of employment (IFL:2012) At first it makes little sense to abolish a fund for those at the fringes of society that will help them to gain employment. However, after considered judgement the policy could be right. By offering everyone a chance to access free first level 2 and 3 qualifications over the age of 24yrs, there seems to be a cast the net as wide as possible approach to increase skill levels, in the post spending review order of less funds to colleges. the idea of targeting and offering everyone, regardless of financial status the chance of a free qualification does not make financial sense and blows against the prevailing neoliberal marketisation wind of the conservative/ liberal democrat coalitions doctrine of progressive reform and fairness. By targeting scarce resources to those who need it based on means tested data makes for good financial sense. That way the objective of targeting those in with a lower socio-economic status will be met.  

 

A consequence of what is termed co-investment (increasing student and employer financial contribution) is that colleges will be increasingly responsible for collection of funds from students and employers. Further decreases in funds to an institution will result, should the amount of funds collected not correlate with expected income.  

 

The effect on the teacher could be to further erode their professionalism by asking them to have a dual role of debt collector and educator. What should happen to the student(s) if funds are not collected from them? Does the teacher have to exclude them from class? This crosses ethical and moral boundaries as the aim of the teacher should be to enable the student to reach their full potential and not erect boundaries to their participation. Similarly, if employers are foot dragging in paying the costs of tuition for their employee’s which then results in litigation, this could cost the institution from both the litigation itself and the penalties imposed from the skills funding agency and the education funding agency (The skills funding agency and further education funding 10th report:2010)   

 

Cause and Effect

 

The spending review has meant that funds for ESOL and the EMA have been abolished to be replaced by a learner funded arrangement in the ESOL case and an enhanced discretionary support fund in place of the EMA (Exley:2011)  

 

The commentary surrounding their abolition has been vociferous and represented as an attack on the most vulnerable in society even to go as far as saying that the abolition of the ESOL will affect UK wide immigrant integration (Exley: 2011) However, research by Maguire: 2008 examines the efficacy of the EMA and comes to different conclusions as to its effect if it were abolished. 

 

The comment by Exley: 2011 supporting the argument that the ESOL and EMA removal will be detrimental to inclusivity and participation is a valid comment. However, there is no comment on the effect on teachers of ESOL and the institutions themselves. 

 

In areas with a high immigrant demographic, colleges that rely on the funds from ESOL students will be at a greater financial disadvantage to those colleges situated in a different catchment with a different demographic. Those colleges with a high ESOL provision will be forced to cut back in other departments or make staff redundancies in order to balance the books. 

 

However, Research by Maguire: (2008) suggests that retention rates were increased after the introduction of the EMA but that was due to a condition of the learning agreement for the payment to take place. Furthermore, Maguire: (2008) went on to suggest that the decision to go to college did not hinge on the receipt of the EMA. If Maguire’s findings are correct then this would translate to no change in student enrolment, subsequently no loss of funds for the institution. 

 

 

The Path Forward

 

In summary, the spending review of 2010 has posed some difficult and awkward questions for further education institutions and learners alike. The state is realigning the relationship between the state,  learner and the employer onto a more equal footing.  

 

The role of the new market reforms in the spending review has blurred the role of the teacher. Should the teacher teach to the states agenda to guarantee funding or should the teacher teach to realise a student’s full potential? A happy medium must coexist with one eye on financial survival and the other eye on the learning experience. 

 

Perhaps we could take solace in the following statement: 

“We have got them (students) to that point where they believe in themselves

 

 

This would suggest that despite the funding initiatives and pressures on institutions, the main focus is always the student.