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'Brexit shows us how to work with our neighbours'

There is much that we can learn from FE systems elsewhere in the UK, writes AoC chief executive David Hughes

The FE systems of the Home Nations can learn a lot from each other, writes David Hughes

There is much that we can learn from FE systems elsewhere in the UK, writes AoC chief executive David Hughes

It’s been difficult to point to positives coming out of the all-consuming nature of Brexit discussions, but I think I’ve found one. The understandable focus on our relationships with the EU, with Europe and with the rest of the world has allowed, perhaps even encouraged, some very welcome discussions to open across our own four nations. We’ve established a new Four Nations College Alliance, which is stimulating sharing, support and actions between colleges and alongside key partners including national governments.

Those discussions with college leaders and government officials are already proving fruitful. Despite post-16 policy and structures having diverged over recent years, it’s clear that there is still more in common between colleges across Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England than there is different. The fundamental challenges colleges face, their purpose and roles, and the impacts they have are all common ground. Every community across all four nations needs a successful college supporting people and businesses to thrive.

At a personal level, any initial wariness of others from a different place has quickly disappeared, and college leaders have gained greatly from sharing their challenges, their ideas and their solutions. Leading a college in any nation can be a lonely and tough business, so why not gain support from others doing the same job in another nation?

Pick and mix the best FE policies

It’s on policy, though, that the four nations' work has been really interesting for me. Our original assumption that there was a lot to be learned across the four nations has been vindicated. In fact, I’d happily take a pick and mix approach, choosing the best policies and approaches from the four and making a new package of measures. It would be powerful and help colleges to do more to support people and businesses, and with the right funding environment, it would help to address many of the big challenges our economy and society face as well.

Who’d have thought that we had so much to learn, so close to home? There are lots of examples I could give – and we’ll be publishing a paper on it later this month – but here are three areas to whet your appetite. Three policy challenges which, from the perspective of England, can be informed by the approaches being taken by our neighbours – productivity, linking further and higher education, and lifelong learning.

Our long-running productivity stagnation has beset all four nations and puzzled many policy-makers and commentators. So, it’s been revealing to see what is happening outside of England in response. In Northern Ireland, the Invest NI Innovation Voucher scheme had enabled colleges to work creatively with SMEs to help them improve their business processes, drive up productivity and support business growth. In Wales, there is a deliberate regional approach to linking business growth and investment with skills opportunities to ensure that businesses are successful and local people can benefit with new jobs.

Colleges 'more important than ever'

The uneasy relationship between FE and HE in England has its own review, led by Philip Augar, and it is exercising the minds of many, including the education secretary, Damian Hinds, who used a speech before Christmas to promote higher technical learning. Part of the angst comes from universities, well-funded for many years, which are expecting a dose of the sorts of funding cuts that colleges have been coping with for the past 10 years. Perhaps we should all look to Wales and the proposals from the Diamond Review, which are joining up student support across FE and HE to allow students more choice of route and institution? Or perhaps to Scotland where colleges deliver far more higher education (technical as well as "traditional") than their counterparts in England can?

All four nations are now talking about stimulating and encouraging lifelong learning, fitting perhaps given that it is 100 years since the landmark Ministry of Reconstruction’s 1919 report on adult education. That report talked about the need to rebuild our society after the Great War, pointing to the many benefits our democracy, society and communities would gain from more of a lifelong learning culture. So, whether it be the pilots that the DfE is running in England to test out new approaches, or the commitment from Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams to explore a new right to lifelong learning, we can learn much from sharing and from evaluating different approaches.

My optimistic sense at the beginning of 2019 is that colleges are more important now than they have been for many years and that politicians of all hues recognise this. The bewildering changes that our country faces and the dislocation of so many communities create the need for colleges to develop local solutions, support more people to benefit from business growth and develop more engaged and informed citizens. We can learn so much across our four nations, so it’s worth looking locally as well as internationally for ideas, inspiration and solutions.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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