This new year has shown no signs that the levels of change, uncertainty and challenge are reducing. The sheer weight of critical and urgent, as well as important and long-term, issues is almost overwhelming. To help cut through, I want to highlight four big issues that colleges are tackling now; issues that have many parts – too many for me to count.
The first is a bit of a cheat, because it is really 17 Covid-related issues that fit into the critical and urgent camp. I set these out last week in a letter to skills minister Gillian Keegan. It’s a long list of difficult issues that shows just how challenging it is to be running a college at the moment. The letter highlights the degree of uncertainty and risk every college leader faces across a range of difficult issues, which all require careful consideration and judgement. I’m sure that every sector could produce similar lists with overlapping and different issues given the profound impact the pandemic has had.
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Secondly, on Friday, the Department for Education and Ofqual published a high-level consultation on how qualifications will be graded and awarded this academic year. After ambitiously aiming not to cancel exams, the education secretary had to accept that the new strain and associated third lockdown made that unviable.
The decisions needed urgently require careful consideration, but time is short with students and teachers all wanting, reasonably, to know how it will work and to be certain that more changes will not follow. So, the challenge is on to be decisive, to think through all the implications and scenarios, to make things simple and to communicate clearly to millions of teachers, students and their families and carers. That is some challenge, which colleges and AoC will want to help with.
The consultation helpfully covers both general and vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) within a coherent framework, and while we expect a lot of the mainstream media scrutiny to be on A levels and GCSEs rather than VTQs, I have been impressed this past 10 days with the work officials and ministers have done to ensure all qualifications are being considered fully, consistently and fairly.
The third is another urgent issue with long-term and profound consequences. The level 3 qualifications consultation (and the linked level 2 and below consultation) pose their own set of difficult questions on which there is no easy consensus, with strong and sometimes opposing views across education, business and government. That’s no surprise, given how complex it is, and because the wrong decisions could have profound consequences for students and colleges. I wrote this piece on it for Tes last week, which seemed to be well received, but with all the challenges facing colleges at the moment I fear that this will not receive the debate and discussion it truly deserves. I just hope that the government shares my ambition that a careful consensus and co-created solution is needed on this.
Finally, and fourthly, there is lots of speculation that the long-awaited FE White Paper will be published this week. I hope it does get published because it will allow us to see what the government really thinks about colleges and post-16 education, or perhaps more realistically, about post-18 education and skills. It will give us changes to welcome, proposals to debate and discuss and probably legislation to influence.
I have no doubt that the White Paper will offer some good news and signal changes that will be positive for colleges, but it will also have some things that will concern us all. That’s normal for anything like this – I’m not even sure that I know what a perfectly positive White Paper would look like, so if it is mainly positive with only some concerns, that would be a good step forward and a signal that the work we have done to raise the profile and prestige of colleges really has worked.
So, 2021 feels like it has started at a million miles an hour, just like 2020 ended. We’ve got a busy year ahead.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges