inTuition taster: Rise to the challenge

A report by ETF and Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, aims to start a conversation around how the Further Education and Skills sector can meet the challenges of a changing landscape, encourage professionalism and change the perception of the sector. 

Anyone working in the Further Education (FE) and Skills sector will know what a powerhouse it can be for transforming the lives of learners and contributing positively to the wider economy. Yet where there are successes, there are also challenges. Understanding these, and transforming them into opportunities within the sector, is essential.

To move towards achieving this transformation, the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), under the guidance of Dr Vikki Smith, executive director, education and standards, undertook a project in 2022/23, with the aid of Professor Harvey Maylor, associate professor and senior fellow in management practice at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

This project, originally the brainchild of David Russell, former chief executive of ETF, was conducted through a wide series of conversations right across the sector, involving providers, practitioners and stakeholders.

As a result, Smith and Maylor, with Dr Paul Tully, ETF’s associate director, research and policy, were able to encapsulate the challenges faced and changes required in the sector in their report, Further Education and Skills: Changing systems of change. By mapping the ecosystem of the sector, Smith and Maylor have offered an understanding of the elements that contribute to both building and eroding dynamism and sustainability.

It is not intended as a solution to all the challenges faced by the FE and Skills sector. Rather, it is a call to create a conversation about collective action around professionalism and changing the perception. This is the beginning, not the conclusion.

The report states: “The current scale and pace of changes in our country are immense, not least due to shifting technology, economic and political priorities and demographics. These influence national educational agendas and have brought to the fore the role of educational and skills development and its contribution to our national ability to respond positively to these challenges: in short, the role of the FE and Skills sector is critical to the future of the UK.”

ETF’s work across the sector recognises that, to be sustainable, the FE and Skills sector needs to be capable of continuous improvement to meet the needs of students and the wider community, including the jobs market. Piecemeal change no longer suffices, if it ever did.  

Smith explains that the report is a mapping of the FE and Skills system and what it means for workforce development. “In terms of systems thinking,” she says, “it maps the positives and the negatives. It explores where the blocks are and what needs to be done to remove them, and it identifies how things could work better. We have mapped how the system works and how we might build more ‘trust loops’. This will help us to streamline the system and to make the changes needed rather than needing third-party involvement.”

FE and Skills has, in recent years, experienced more change than any other sector in education. “FE and Skills is where all the economic stimulation is going to come from,” Smith explains. “It makes a social, economic and cultural contribution.” Workforce development is therefore essential. It recognises that professionals in FE and Skills often embody at least two professional identities.

Systemic failings

As a facilitator in the process, Maylor identified that the challenges facing the sector are systemic. “What I was hearing sounded like a systems problem,” he says. “If we understand better the problems the sector is facing, can we deal with them better?”

Maylor’s concern with process led to the research team thinking systemically about the issue of the sector’s challenges. “Hero work can be great at a local level,” Maylor explains, “but there are some challenges that no amount of hero work will solve. The system has to be a sustainable, self-improving system. This must be achieved through collective action. This is about fixing the challenges of the system and not just focusing on local problems.” 

Maylor and Smith started to analyse self-reinforcing loops in the FE and Skills sector system. “A trust loop is a good loop,” Maylor says. “Trust leads to less uncertainty. It is a self-reinforcing system. But there are negative loops around staff workload. For example, stress leads to time off, which leads to overwork of remaining staff, which leads to more stress. We don’t want self-sustaining negative loops. Rather, we need to break or balance these loops.”

Circle flow chart showing the FE and Skills as a sustainably self-improving system

For Maylor, moving towards solutions for the sector means thinking about the art of the possible, so that it might become a sustainably self-improving system. “The report isn’t there to solve problems,” Maylor explains. “Through the conversations we had, we identified the FE and Skills ecosystems that are required for positive system change” (see Figure 1).

The specific ecosystems required for positive system change are those interconnected elements within the sector that feed into its overall effectiveness. The report identifies these as: FE and Skills effectiveness improves; FE and Skills is perceived as successful; FE and Skills attracts people, funding, new initiatives and light-touch regulation; and FE and Skills is a better place to work and to learn (see Figure 1).

While well-established work is going on to support three of these four areas, which needs to continue and develop, the problematic aspect is the way in which FE and Skills is seen, and this is the challenge that Maylor and Smith are inviting people to join with them to work on.

The report states that we need to get to the point where “success is evidenced by a highly positive reputation both locally and nationally, including but not limited to, high employment rates among graduating learners. This would encourage more learners to see FE and Skills as a viable development route and lead to an increased pool of skilled individuals in the workforce. This would potentially stimulate economic growth.”


Moving forward

Thriving economies must have a dynamic and sustainable FE and Skills sector. The sector needs to have better conversations about the critical aspects that would help movement towards a better future.

The work undertaken by Smith, Maylor and Tully has identified focal points for engendering positive systems-level change. These focal points have high-quality teaching and learning at their centre, and cover six strands:

Strand 1: Good leadership – trust-based cultures and continuous improvement are highlighted.

Strand 2: Quality of initial teacher education (ITE) – rigorous teaching qualifications and a robust understanding of effective pedagogy are essential. 

Strand 3: Access to CPD – personal mastery and accessible, relevant CPD.

Strand 4: Research-informed practice – embedding research to inform teaching and enhance pedagogy.

Strand 5: Professional standards – adopting professional standards to promote professionalism.

Strand 6: Career pathways and support – career development as central to workforce professionalism, developing and maintaining expertise.

“When we think systemically about the FE and Skills sector,” Smith explains, “we can map the opportunities we have for positive change that can further drive professionalism, improve teaching and learning, champion inclusion and enable sector change. These are the four strategic goals of ETF.” 

Feedback loops

Professor Harvey Maylor, associate professor and senior fellow in management practice at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, outlines how systems thinking helped identify challenges facing the FE and Skills sector:

We used the lens of systems thinking to help us individually to attempt to understand the complex system that is FE and Skills, and to enable us to explain it to others. FE and Skills is multifaceted and the elements that comprise it are both interconnected and interdependent.

Today we view systems thinking as “a set of synergistic analytical skills used to improve the capability of identifying and understanding systems, predicting their behaviours, and devising modifications to them in order to produce desired effects. These skills [themselves] work together as a system” (Arnold and Wade, 2015).

Two further ideas are central to our consideration. The first concerns the boundaries of any system. The next, linked to this, concerns levels or ‘hierarchies’ that exist within systems. For instance, a marking and assessment system is one operational element within the larger system of a college, which is itself an element of a larger social, commercial and educational system.

Our level of analysis is a crucial consideration; too low and it risks missing important and highly influential elements at higher levels, or being swamped by elements. If chosen too high, then the abstraction loses meaning.

Image of two loops: classic postive loop and classic negative loop. The Classic positive loops include the trust loop: Provided that none of the elements of the loop are broken, then trust between two parties will increase. The Classic negative loops include the scrutiny loop: This is a self-defeating loop, instigated in many organisations. Unless something is changed in this loop, there is little chance the system can be improved.

Drawing on the traditions of soft systems thinking, we searched for feedback loops. These are sets of actors and actions that were part of systems that would themselves be self-sustaining, at least in the short term.

These were termed ‘positive’ where they yielded benefit for the organisation or ‘negative’ where they were detrimental.

These loops are interesting, because they are the basic building blocks of one of our most powerful tools – the systems map.

The real power is when the agents in the system combine to:

  • Create a positive loop that does not currently exist.
  • Break a negative loop that does.

Elizabeth Holmes is a freelance journalist specialising in the education sector.

Top image credit: iStock

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