The Policy and Inclusion project has highlighted two problems linked to inspection and quality improvement: firstly, the fact that there has been considerable confusion within the learning and skills sector over responsibility for quality improvement8; and secondly, while a lot of attention has been devoted to making improvements in seriously under-performing colleges, much less has been paid to improving quality in colleges with middling inspection grades which may not be realising their full potential.
Mission and purpose
The ‘skills agenda’ versus a broader purpose for FE We welcome the raised profile and attention that the review gives to an undermined and undervalued sector. However, our research does not show support for the narrow mission of ‘skills’ as the basis for inclusion proposed by Foster. Instead, all projects concur with Foster’s positive comments about the attitudes and motivation of students in FE, and show that learners and teachers welcome the diverse purposes and second chance opportunities offered by colleges.
The projects also show that colleges deal with very large numbers of young people and adults who found their earlier education a dispiriting and demotivating experience, and who are not ready for clear vocational choices or to develop employment-related skills. All students interviewed and observed in our projects need and want a different learning environment. In comparing FE colleges with US community colleges, the review appears to overlook the diverse and eclectic purposes of those colleges. We therefore disagree that the mission of UK further education colleges should be narrowed. 9
There are also questions about the place and importance of higher education provision in FE colleges, and the danger that a narrow skills-based mission will result in the dismantling of HE provision in FE or its recasting as ‘higher skills’. Either outcome will affect the aim of widening participation in HE. The TLRP has seven projects exploring teaching and learning and the relationship
8 The FE White Paper (DfES, 2006) acknowledges this confusion and highlights how “for the first time, we will have a single agency and a single strategy for quality improvement….A new single body, the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA), will bring together the former quality improvement and development activities of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, the DfES Standards and Skills for Life Units, the Learning and Skills Council and the Adult Learning Inspectorate. It will offer a single, integrated approach to quality development and improvement across the sector.”
9 The rhetorical stance of the FE White Paper (DfES, 2006) seems clear: “we will put the economic mission of the sector at the heart of its role”. However, there is at least recognition of the dangers: “This economic mission does not mean narrow vocationalism. It includes for instance the general education that employers value and the stepping stone provision that helps prepare people for success in life and work as well as provision at Levels 2 and 3.”