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'Are colleges important to the government or not?'

Despite the increasing political focus on the sector, there is no overarching strategy for FE, writes David Hughes

t levels damian hinds government vocational

Despite the increasing political focus on the sector, there is no overarching strategy for FE, writes David Hughes

Any newcomer to the college sector would surely be confused after a scroll through the latest headlines on the Tes FE site. The positive news about new policies and new investment seem to be balanced by a slew of headlines suggesting that this is a sector with major challenges which are not being addressed. Are colleges important to the government or not?

On the positive side, there’s the continued commitment to T levels and the investment needed to implement a major change programme over many years, probably a decade for real success. The announcement to pilot free educations for low-earning adults is a modest step in the right direction to help adults on low pay, who we know usually get stuck in a low-skill, low-pay, no-prospects trap without the means to access skills training which could help them escape.

Read those, and you’d expect them to be part of an overarching strategy; a plan, a concerted effort to invest in colleges to help young people, adults, employers and communities get the education, training and skills they need. Even the most advanced Google searching will not help you here – there is no strategy, despite colleges being more centre-stage than they have been for a long while. What we do have is a long list of isolated and seemingly-unconnected policies, most of which are quite good, but with no sense of how they all fit together.

Fundamental truths

Perhaps that’s why we also have the challenges. The list of headlines speaks for itself – have a look and you’ll see what I mean. There are two fundamental truths that have got us here. The first is that this is a sector that has been continuously undermined through a decade of funding cuts and freezes. The second is that this is a sector long-misunderstood, over-looked and played around with by governments, ministers and officials, probably both because they have been able to and because they have failed to understand the gains from a strategic approach.

So, back to the headlines. Quite a few feature pay, unsurprisingly, given the funding cuts. Staff have suffered because of the national cuts, and students have too. "I am in awe of GCSE resit students", says Tom Starkey, rightly pointing to the pressure on students, staff and college resources. It still baffles me that the £650 per student per resit has not been found by the Department for Education to support what is one of their high-profile and high-priority policies.

That funding would properly fund the extra hours and support that students deserve. It would also alleviate funding pressures and with colleges commonly having over 1000 and sometimes over 2000 students resitting, this adds up to a huge headache for every college. Overall, the cost to the DfE would be £130 million.

College costs

On a smaller scale, the costs of college digital services warrant a blog by Ian Pretty. Here’s another area of high priority for the government that was being supported by a payment to Jisc on behalf of all colleges – a good example of collective purchasing that has delivered successfully for many years. Why, then, is it right to stop paying for that centrally, particularly while college funding rates have been frozen for more than five years? The cost to DfE is only £6 million.

One more headline shows that this is not just about the money. Long read: Applied Generals in a battle to survive is not a story about cuts to the defence budget, but a great example of the uncertainty which the lack of strategy perpetuates.

Applied General qualifications (AGs) serve tens of thousands of students well every year – helping many to progress onto higher learning and many to get into decent jobs. The new T levels though have led many to believe that the public funding for AGs will cease, even though that would be perverse in those curriculum areas where no T level will replace the AG. I’m sure that common sense will prevail but the lack of a strong statement of support undermines confidence in these qualifications for no good reason.  

Vital parts of the system

It’s such a shame because in my discussions with officials and with ministers, colleges are increasingly seen as vital parts of the education and training system. Officials are working more closely with us at AoC and with colleges than I have seen for over a decade and understanding and respect is growing on both sides. This partnership working is good for the long-term but warm words butter no parsnips. What colleges need is an unambiguous statement of intent from the DfE, that colleges are central to their thinking, that colleges are vital in every community and that investment is on its way to support those policies and words.

The next spending review cannot come soon enough to invest the capital and revenue colleges, communities, students and employers need. Before then, how about reinstating that Jisc subsidy and paying the £650 for every resit? That investment of about £136 million annually would be a sure sign of intent and would help enormously.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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