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'Battered' colleges still 'essential' to economic growth, claims AoC

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FE colleges are still essential to the country’s economic recovery even though they have been “battered by a swathe of funding cuts”, according to the Association of Colleges.

The AoC has come out fighting after two major reports published yesterday threw the future of FE colleges into doubt.

A report by the National Audit Office highlighting the rapid financial decline of the sector revealed that 70 colleges could be rated financially inadequate by the end of the financial year.

A separate report by the government called for major reform of post-16 education to deal with the “significant” financial pressures faced by FE and sixth-form colleges. It announced a series of “area reviews” into post-16 provision, which it suggested could lead to fewer, larger providers.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said: “Colleges have been battered by a swathe of funding cuts over recent years and it is no surprise that their financial health has suffered as a result. While the FE sector is resilient, it cannot endure any more cuts without impact on the local communities it serves.”

Mr Doel said the need for area reviews was partially the result of funding cuts, but added that colleges would continue to adapt and evolve. “Colleges will be essential if the recovery is to be sustained through the development of a highly skilled workforce,” he added.

Other sector bodies criticised the focus of the area reviews.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Association, called them “fundamentally flawed” for focusing on FE and sixth-form colleges but not addressing underperformance in schools and academies.

David Hughes, chief executive of adult education body Niace, said that people with low-level skills could miss out and the low-paid could fail to get the support they needed as a result of the reviews. He added: “I hope the reviews will uncover the challenges local people face in accessing the training they need to increase their earnings.”

Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said that funding cuts had affected all providers, not just colleges, and expressed concern that “significant” funds had been allocated to support colleges in difficulty, instead of learners.

He said the area reviews must take into account the full range of organisations involved in local delivery, including independent training providers.

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