The start of a new academic year always brings mixed feelings. As nice as it may be to catch up with colleagues, it’s hard to shake that lingering sense of uncertainty about what the coming months will bring.
However you dress up ministers’ calls for “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers”, it is clear that thousands of teaching and support staff will be returning to institutions that, come 2020, will no longer exist. The adult skills budget has already been cut to the bone. It’s inconceivable that at least some of the savings yet to come – as much as 40 per cent of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ funding – will not be taken from FE.
Make no mistake: there will be casualties – and they will not just be supposedly wasteful, unresponsive colleges, but also vulnerable learners trying to turn their lives around.
And yet this is by no means a simple narrative of despair. Something is changing. People in quite unexpected areas are starting to care about FE.
For better or worse, the Conservatives’ pledge to create 3 million apprenticeships has shunted the sector into the public consciousness. In chancellor George Osborne’s summer Budget, it was not a flagship announcement about schools or higher education that got commentators hot under the collar but news of an apprenticeship levy.
Just as striking is FE’s new BFF: the Policy Exchange thinktank. More accustomed to cavorting with free schools and universities, the organisation last month argued that schools which fail to help their students to obtain a good GCSE pass in English or maths should compensate the colleges that have to pick up the pieces. And in the coming weeks, the right-leaning thinktank will publish another report calling for funding to be diverted from universities to FE – a surprise akin to José Mourinho demanding that greater powers be delegated to football club doctors.
This higher profile does bring its own problems, of course, not least ill-informed sniping from outside. “Today’s youngsters, under so-called modern apprenticeships, are left to do the photocopying,” droned The Independent on Sunday’s editorial at the weekend (who exactly it is that still uses the phrase “modern apprenticeships” south of Gretna, the newspaper did not specify).
There are plenty of legitimate concerns brewing, though: as TES reported last week, the arbitrary target of 3 million apprenticeships risks devaluing the programme if quality becomes secondary to quantity. Unanswered questions about the implementation of the levy – not least the haste in which it is set to be introduced – abound. And the K College debacle serves as a reminder of the dangers posed by mismanaged mergers.
But this only emphasises the need for FE to sing its own praises more loudly. After all, if ministers only hear carping and moaning from the sector that it has catapulted into the mainstream, who could blame them for casting longing glances at the schools and HE sectors?
Whether you like it or not, FE is the centre of attention. It’s time for colleges and providers to show why they deserve to stay there.