Last week saw the publication of the Social Mobility Commission’s evidence review on “Improving attainment among disadvantaged students in the FE and adult learning sector”. This review is welcome – education plays a vital role in social mobility, and it is possible to put undue focus on pre-16 education, or on higher education, failing to recognise first that most people are already outside of those groups, and second that for many people, especially those with disadvantaged or traumatic childhoods, mobility is a lifelong journey with many twists and turns along the way.
The review also recommends the establishment by the government of a What Works Centre (WWC) for Further Education, with £20million of funding over 5 years. At £4million a year, this would establish this centre as one of the best funded of the government’s 13 (then 14) WWCs – smaller only than the Youth Endowment Fund, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the Youth Futures Foundation (YFF), and the Centre for Ageing Better.
The idea of a WWC for Further Education is one close to our hearts. As directors of two WWCs – the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO, Hume), and What Works for Children’s Social Care (WW-CSC, Sanders), we’re firm believers in the cause of the What Works movement, and have experienced the highs and lows of establishing a new centre from scratch. We were also, as the Chief Scientist and Head of Skills at the Behavioural Insights Team, heavily involved in further education research, most prominently in the Adult Skills and Knowledge What Works Centre (Hume et al 2018), where we conducted some of the largest randomised trials in further education in the UK.
The arguments for a WWC for FE are finely balanced. There is an argument that, instead of a new organisation, any money should simply be given to the EEF to expand their remit to include FE and adult learning, or perhaps the Youth Futures Foundation, recently established to look at the employment outcomes for the young people who are furthest from the labour market. It is also fair to say that the last few years have seen the proliferation of many new WWCs, with an accompanying complexity of which organisation is covering which issue – adding another for FE could intensify this problem and reduce the opportunity for cross-pollination that would come from housing FE within another WWC.
We have some sympathy with this view, but there are good reasons to disagree. We’d argue that TASO is more effective at what it does because it speaks directly to the Higher Education sector, and the myriad widening participation practitioners working within it – rather than trying to adjust a discussion that is fundamentally about school education to fit a different audience. One of the challenges that government faces, evident in the Department for Education, is the need to manage and trade off stakeholders across different sectors and to try – inevitably in vain – to be all things to all people. In this environment, FE is frequently overshadowed by school and higher education – just take, for example, the relative awareness of the UCAS HE and FE offers.
What about expertise? Here again, the answer is difficult. A lot of skills, and back office processes, are similar between WWCs – grant management, tendering, a good understanding of RCTs, GDPR, and research ethics are all essential. With these skills being in short supply, a single WWC is attractive organisationally – and probably more cost-effective. There are also economies of scope – understanding the education system as a whole, from school, to college and university, to adult education, could seed innovation and build expertise. Further, to the extent that there is less developed subject and academic expertise in FE – with some exceptions like CVER – gaining access to the researchers and academics who are attached to the EEF, for example, could be invaluable.
The but here – and it’s pretty substantial – is that further education is profoundly different to both pre-16 education, and higher education although FE colleges teach both GCSEs and Higher Education Courses. In our careers we’ve been fortunate enough to run experiments with sixth form colleges, further education colleges, apprenticeship providers and large employers. All these contexts are different, in important ways, to research in schools or higher education. Further education colleges, for example, can be very large, averaging more than 6000 students, and offer a wide range of courses at different levels. Reflecting the diversity of their student body, they’re also often more flexible – making some interventions, and some evaluations, harder to administer. Data are also usually more complex to work with.
Further education colleges can make for straightforward evaluations, however, compared to working with employers own internal offerings or support of adult education. Adult learners live complex lives, and might be reluctant to take part in an evaluation. Even finding employers that have a large enough adult education offering to facilitate a randomised trial is challenging. These challenges are not insurmountable – as we’ve seen in our own research – but they are very substantial, and they require focus to overcome them.
The challenge posed by the crossover between What Works Centres is also real. The EEF already works in with GCSE resit students in FE colleges, and TASO partners with FE colleges that offer higher education courses. The Youth Futures Foundation will also need to work with FE colleges and employers to support NEETs into employment. However, siting FE in one of the other centres doesn’t necessarily solve this problem, which is one of coordination. The WWCs already work together to share expertise and experience, and the need to coordinate approaches to the same beneficiaries or partners is something the network recognises and is working on.
Further and adult education research are important enough to warrant a larger, stronger evidence base behind them, and certainly too important to be a mere adjunct to someone’s existing job. Whether a new what works centre is created, or further education becomes the focus of an existing centre, it deserves attention and dedication.
Views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.