What a rollercoaster of a year.
Politically, we were all led to believe that we would continue to be governed by a coalition of some hue, only to find that we have a government with a small but secure majority. In terms of college funding, the year started with a disastrous cut to the adult skills budget of 24 per cent, which was then followed by a further 4 per cent cut in the emergency budget. But the year ended with the outcome of the Spending Review being much less damaging than we had been led to fear.
Along the way, the fascination with apprenticeships has continued, with a bidding war during the election campaign to increase the number of apprenticeships. The winning bid was 3 million, but there was little clue given as to how this was going to be achieved. The surprise after the election was the decision to fund apprenticeship growth through an employer levy, a policy that had allegedly been rejected by the Brown administration as being too unfriendly toward employers. The year ended with the somewhat belated publication of a plan drawing together the various work strands needed to generate 3 million high-quality apprenticeships.
Also along the way, we saw a massive increase in English and maths in colleges as they were enlisted to redress the inability of schools to enable all young people to reach required benchmarks by age 16. There was also much debate and concern at the relative lack of higher technical and professional education beyond schools but below full degree level; much concern but little practical action to enable colleges to fulfil their potential in meeting the needs of the nation in increasing productivity through this level of study. Funding and quality systems continue to favour what Nick Hillman, a former special adviser to the universities ministers, has called the “Harry Potter” system of three-year full-time residential higher education for 18-year-olds with a bias towards theory, rather than practice.
Oh, and by the way, a process of area reviews was kicked off looking at options to secure a sustainable pattern of colleges in the face of the consequences of five years of successive cuts in public funding.
So where does this dizzying year leave colleges? The final point regarding area reviews is, I think, an instructive one. There is an implicit acknowledgement in conducting the area reviews that colleges, whether further education, sixth-form or specialist, are an essential part of the fabric of our education system. Delivering 3 million high-quality apprenticeships in key sectors, ensuring all young people have the vital English and maths skills needed in a modern economy, rejuvenating higher technical and professional education, providing routes to further higher study in a socially inclusive and cost effective way, is simply not possible without a pattern of good-quality, locally responsive colleges.
The same explanation could also be used to rationalise the less damaging than feared outcome to the Spending Review. There were many candidates to receive the benefit of the £27 billion that the Office for Budget Responsibility found "down the back of the sofa". It is no coincidence that some of it found its way to the adult skills and 16-19 budgets, thereby acknowledging that this vital sector was in Alison Wolf’s words, "close to the precipice".
The spending settlement means that colleges have breathing space – not much, but some – in order to reorientate their business models to respond to changed priorities. But as well as resources, colleges, as public value-delivering organisations, also need a clear and competent policy framework in which to operate, preferably one that has a half-life of more than a year or two. They would also benefit from funding allocations that are notified more than three months ahead of a new academic year and without nasty last-minute surprises.
Given this space and a stable policy framework, colleges will respond as they have always done – with ingenuity, integrity and determination to do their considerable best for students, communities and employers.
Martin Doel is the chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC). He will be stepping down from his post in September 2016