Reflections on ‘What are we educating for in Further and Vocational Education?’

Paul Ashwin and Charles Clarke

Society for Research into Higher Education, 18th May 2023

Panellists: Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker, Professor Martin Doel and Fiona Morey.

Sun setting over the sea with sunrays seen through clouds.

Photograph: Image by Timo Volz on Unsplash

NB: These notes are based on Paul and Charles’s reflections on this seminar and should not be taken as stating the views of the panellists or those who attended the seminar. Rather they are a particular interpretation of the engaging discussions that took place during the seminar.

In this seminar, we examined the question of what we are educating for in further and vocational education.

Fiona Morey argued that ‘Further’ and ‘Vocational’ Education, both together and separate, were the least defined education sector(s) in the UK. Further Education focuses on basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, in order to support students in getting secure jobs and careers. Vocational Education builds on these basic skills through vocational and technical qualifications. London South Bank University (LSBU) Group has split these roles into two separate institutions. There are diverse views about what the sector is for. It is linked to students gaining employment and good jobs. Whilst policy makers sometimes seem to see the sector in a transactional way in which it should produce X number of engineers, the sector doesn’t work like that. It is not the demand for engineers that drives students to become engineers; it is the inspiration to become engineer. Whilst the sector has economic impact, it also has important impacts on wellbeing, mental health and supporting learning journeys. Further and vocational education transforms lives in terms of how people approach their lives, their career and their education. The sector educates people for our democratic society and supports them to find their place in the world. It covers a diverse range of people including 14 -16 year olds, 16-19 year olds, and adults of all ages. This makes for a complex setting in which students are educated in basic skills, supported to enter vocational education, higher education and the workplace. Whilst the sector is linked to work, it is linked through the notion of ‘a vocation’ in which students find a sense of where they belong and an identity as a professional.

Ann-Marie Bathmaker highlighted the debates about Further and Vocational Education that have been hosted by the Edge Foundation. Ann-Marie argued that Further and Vocational Education was focused on educating (extra) ordinary people. People who are working class, aren’t pretentious, and who may not get the best job in the world but who are important and often get overlooked. Ann-Marie emphasises how the 1997 Kennedy Report defined Further Education in terms of all education that doesn’t happen in schools and universities. This includes a wider range of vocational and adult education institutions including institutes for adult learning and the Workers’ Educational Association. These institutions educate those who have not had a smooth educational pathway and are often seen as ‘other people’ or ‘other people’s children’ but who make up around half of the population. Ann-Marie highlighted how in 1947 the Ministry of Education emphasised that such education was important for understanding the world and human relationships as well as employment, whereas in 2021 the Department for Education’s focus was purely on developing skills for employment. In contrast, Ann-Marie argued we increasingly need to educate people for life with no work and a new era of Artificial Intelligence. People also need to be educated in how to deal with the numerous issues facing our society, such as the climate crisis, poverty, austerity, migration, population change, health, conflict and war. Ann-Marie argued that increasingly policy makers in central government dominate decision making about what we are educating for in Further and Vocational Education. We need to hear more voices including employers, educational practitioners, learners, students and apprentices, Trade Unions, local government, college leaders, researchers, and national and regional think tanks. She felt that too often research was ignored and that policy makers ignored how ‘sticky’ existing practices are, which means that we cannot simply ignore history and expect it to be straightforward to successfully implement effective practices from other countries. In conclusion, Ann-Marie suggested that we need to find a way of talking about the everyday successes of those on a second or third chance when in public discourse only heroic narratives of ‘alpha success’ make headlines.

Martin Doel argued that the conflation of ‘Further’ and ‘Vocational’ Education was really unhelpful, potentially implying that FE was only about vocational education and that FE alone delivered vocational education. Echoing Helena Kennedy’s description referred to by Anne-Marie, Martin felt that Further Education could only defined by what it was not (ie education not delivered in a school or university); for this reason, in his remarks he focused on Vocational Education. He argued that it was important for institutions delivering vocational education to have a clear mission and to be specific about the ways in which they transform lives. Too many colleges will do anything they are asked rather than defining their mission in a distinctive way. Martin argued further that training is seen as an inferior form of learning, but that it was an important component of vocational education and training (VET). Martin emphasised that being clear about such terms was important so that different parties did not argue past one another in educational debates. Martin argued that the relations between policy makers and researchers were fractured and partial. Policy is informed by practice in a partial way and policy makers use research in a self-serving way. Martin suggested that this was because of a lack of a systematic research base that is clearly structured and uses distinctive theories to understand vocational education. It is really important to develop spaces that bring together policy makers, practitioners, employers and researchers. We need research into what employers need (not want) and what students want (not need) and into what the nation needs and wants. To do this, researchers need to focus on significant questions rather than easy to answer questions and practitioners need to engage with research and use it to inform their practices. Policymakers need to think about overall questions of policy as well as considering more carefully how policies play out in practice. Martin argued that there needed to be a clearer sense of how we educate the whole person with a broad education up to 18, in which students are educated through vocational education, and post 18 education in which people are educated for their vocation. He concluded by suggesting that the need for training, as opposed to education, increases as people get older and economic consideration become more immediate.

In the discussion, there were questions raised about how students are supported to find a vocation. Is it possible to restructure education so that they are given shorter introductions to a wider range of vocations so that they can find their vocation? It was argued that too often the Further Education sector was forced to work with policies that were developed for schools or universities, rather than policies that were made for Further Education. It was argued that Further Education needs to claim its own space in order to raise its status and to professionalise educators in the sector. A strength of Further Education colleges was their close relationships with their local communities but this also meant that they dealt with too many different educational challenges that arose in those communities. Too often colleges followed the available funding rather than being clear about their own identities. A great deal of snobbery still surrounds vocational education, as demonstrated by the public outcry to the proposal that medical doctors take an apprenticeship to enter the profession. A major challenge for the sector is how to maintain a focus on ordinary people, often with troublesome educational pathways, and a focus on offering these people a very high quality education rather than trying to find ‘better‘ students. A final challenge was to imagine an institutional structure for Further and Vocational Education that could support people throughout their lives.

We gratefully acknowledge the funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, FASS Research Fund and Lancaster University for this seminar series. We also acknowledge the support of the British Educational Research Association and the hosting of the series by the Society for Research into Higher Education.