Today will be full of news about A level results and what is happening to student access to higher education. I hope at least some attention will be paid to the continuing plunge in mature student enrolments, and especially to the way in which part-time higher education has been harshly squeezed over the last years, but the focus will be on school leavers. My firm bet is that a count of the images used in the press reports on exam results will show a big majority of girls. One reason of course is that papers find them more photogenic , and they probably smile more easily than boys; but another is that there will, yet again, be many more successful girls than boys.
I want to switch attention away from HE, to the much neglected FE sector. FE was the first sector where a ‘gender crossover’ took place, i.e. where women began to outperform men educationally. That was a good 25 years ago. I chair the governors of the Working Men’s College in Camden, which caters for an extraordinarily broad range of students. Our Diversity Day is a glorious spectacle, as students from over 60 nationalities put on national costume, and provide national food and music. Our major strength is in ESOL, but we excel in all kinds of fashion courses, and in arts and humanities, including pottery classes which produce a constant stream of interesting shapes. Our latest venture is hair and beauty – inside Holloway Prison.
Of course our name is a regular source of comment, and about every five years we think about changing it. Over two thirds of our students are women. We do call ourselves the Working Mens College for men and women, and our subtitle is Camden’s Community College. But the title is literally built into the bricks, and is a powerful brand with a very long history reaching back to the 19th century, so for the time being it endures.
Anyway, I’ve just been reading papers from the Dept of Business, Innovation and Skills on ‘outcome-based success measurement’ for colleges (such are the joys of governorship). I think, incidentally, these are probably the first DBIS papers published under the watch of Nick Boles, who has been appointed as the new Minister for Skills and Equality – that’s an interesting combination of portfolios, and I look forward to seeing how he brings the two together. DBIS is pushing forward outcome measurement, which is fair enough – provided that the measures are used in the right way, and they have published a consultation
The key measures are sustained employment and sustained learning. In the accompanying paper on experimental data, for those who finished a course in 2010-11 we can see first that there are many more women completing FE courses – 814K to 676K, a difference of around 20%. When it comes to employment outcomes – i.e. whether the person went on to be in employment for at least 5 months out of 6 during the period October 2011 to March 2012 – the rates are identical for women and men, at 61%. But when it comes to sustained learning – i.e. those who were engaged in learning, whether or not they were also in employment – there is a large gap: 24% of women are still learning a year or so on from completing their course, compared with 17% of men. That means about 115K men continued learning – and 195K women. The competence gap continues to surge, in FE as elsewhere.