What does Boris Johnson have to do with a self-improving FE system? – FE News

One of the most surprising things about the political events of the past week from an educational perspective has been the comings and goings at the DfE. A new Secretary of State – James Cleverly – has now been appointed and no doubt the DfE website will soon list the entire new ministerial team. A new PM is likely to start with a reshuffle to get their allies where they want them – and likewise get their detractors where they want them too! But there’s really no guessing whether the new SoS is here for the long haul or not.

But the bigger problem is that the ‘long term’ for an education minister really isn’t long at all. In 16 years in public service, between 1998 and 2014, I served under 8 different Secretaries of State responsible for all or part of the education system – Blunkett, Morris, Clarke, Kelly, Johnson, Denham, Balls and Gove. Since then there have been 7 more – Morgan, Greening, Hinds, Williamson, Zahawi, Donelan [unfair perhaps] and now artfully. And that’s before we even start looking at the junior ministers who have held the ever-changing skill/FE portfolios over the years, Labor and Conservative, who are too numerous to mention.

How can the FE system thrive in such political instability?

School policy has actually been very stable since the Govian reforms of a decade ago, despite the revolving door of education secretaries. This was almost entirely due to the long tenure of the Right Honorable Nick Gibb, keeper of the flame of a knowledge-based curriculum and shock absorber of countless pressures to pull the school system this way and that in response to lobbies and trends .

The FE and skills policy has not been so successful in the long run. And in fact, Mr Gibb – whatever one thinks of his policies – was very unusual in having no political ambitions other than to be Schools Minister, which was his passion. Even his detractors admitted that he was sincere, consistent and had acquired an incredibly deep knowledge of the school system. His example is the exception that proves the rule – we will usually never get this kind of system-level stability thanks to our very fluid democratic system.

So if politics will never provide a stable vision at the system level, where can it come from? Some say the answer is cross-party consensus. Others say education should somehow be taken out of the political realm altogether. I think these are unrealistic solutions, even if they were desirable.

In my opinion, the FE system needs to take control of itself

FE is a system, no matter what some say. Often when critics say “it’s not even a system”, they mean it’s not planned, or it’s not consistent, or maybe it doesn’t even work. very good. But a system doesn’t have to be planned or consistent or work well; it is simply a set of elements that interact to create a result set such that if you change one part, you will affect the rest.

FE as a system currently responds to external inputs. These come from all sorts of places – employers, government, learners – and cannot be controlled. It behaves like a system but does not take control of its own systemic behaviors. But it could do it. If enough people working in the FE system changed the way they work, it could look very different. Concretely, this would mean that each of us:

  • See our roles in a system context, not in isolation
  • Believing that it is our responsibility to influence the success of the whole system
  • Collaborate with others for systemic benefit
  • Act to create processes that would improve the functioning of the whole system.

A self-improving FE system

In a self-improving FE system, a frequent change of minister would have no negative impact. There would be no worry in waiting to see if all the old priorities went out the window and new ones were invented. A self-improving system would be confident in its primary purpose, and confident that it knows how to identify success and amplify it, and detect shortcomings and improve upon it. Ministers would play the role of determining high-level goals for the state-funded parts of the FE system and would only step in to help the system become even better at self-improvement. It may seem like a chimera. But we have for decades been stuck in a loop of lobbying the government and responding to its decisions.

In a self-improving system, we would confidently pursue the strategies that we know from evidence and experience to be successful. We would look to each other for guidance, support and advice, not to outside agencies. And we would openly share with the system not only our successes and their secrets, but also our failures and what we learned from them. In other words, I think it seems not only achievable, but essential.

By David Russell, Executive-in-Residence at Said Business School, University of Oxford

David Russell is Executive-in-Residence at Said Business School, University of Oxford, leading a collaborative project on creating a self-improving FE system. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of Oxford Said Business School.

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Edward L. Robinett