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Powerful knowledge? Challenging neoliberal trends in FE policy and practice.

Expert comment

Powerful knowledge? Challenging neoliberal trends in FE policy and practice.

Zahid Naz and Dr Chris Beighton discuss how current focus in Further Education to fill skills gaps via a fixed criteria is failing to acknowledge local values and context within education.

Much has been written about the ‘neo liberalization’ of Further Education (FE) in response to announcements such as the development of T Level qualifications for FE and skills boot camps with a £1.6 bn funding package for 2021-2025.

Recent research by Zahid Naz suggests that these trends are deepening, as a pre-occupation with economic rationality impacts on education’s social value.

A focus on educational practices per se is downplayed, critics argue, as the quest for compliance with commodified, marketized forms of training implies behaviouristic, repetitive approaches. Attention is also distracted from the complex socio-economic environments in which FE colleges, by definition, operate.

The case of Summerhill School which successfully challenged an Ofsted verdict in 2000 is instructive: the schools’ regulator was criticized not just for failing to consider Summerhill’s philosophy and values, but also for incorrectly evaluating their practices according to fixed (and therefore inappropriate) criteria. It reminds us that, against what Ian Stronach calls the audit culture , local contexts, local policies and local practices cannot be underestimated or ignored if our inspection frameworks and our education system as a whole are to be effective.

So, for example, FE provision traditionally defines itself in relation to a perceived skills deficit (see, for instance Beighton, 2020). Underpinned by a lexicon of investment, employability and finance – and boot camps – this undermines education’s political or aesthetic potential, foreclosing meaningful social mobility. Powerful knowledge, such as that developed in the humanities and social sciences, is also devalued along with the capacity to work with abstraction, to use one’s imagination or to develop one’s intellectual independence. Being made “employment-ready” is considered (more than) enough.

However, figures on access to university released by the government last week show that the achievement gap created by this ethos is increasing and is at its widest for 15 years.

To tackle this, first, pedagogical (rather than neo-liberal) logic is needed. This implies a challenge to educators, students and institutions alike. Assumptions such as FE students’ deficit of intellectual capacity – their inability to learn powerful knowledge – accompanies the (unsubstantiated) idea that such learners are not developmentally ready to access or benefit from it. On the contrary, the inclusion of powerful knowledge does not undermine so-called vocational, applied or technical learning and, rather, helps strengthen them as a better progression route for Higher Education.

Second, we should note that FE inspection criteria are derived from research in school settings. This puts the sector at a disadvantage, because FE’s demographics and environments are highly specific, and its inspection practices must be informed by the complex forms of economic, social and cultural capital this implies. Thinking this complexity is certainly difficult, especially for a marketized ideology based on the exchange value of learning and learners as commodities. But local, context-bound factors must be understood before any judgements can be made about the quality of education, development or skills.

Dr Chris Beighton is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education, Zahid Naz is PhD student.