BTEC debacle shows we are still too often forgotten

Despite some progress being made, further education is still being sidelined – and the recent announcements on BTECs are one example, says Phil Sayles

Phil Sayles

This principal wonders if colleges will ever get the attention they deserve

Everyone in further education will have a long list of developments they’d like to see in 2021. I do. But making my own list, I keep coming back to the one universal factor, which could be our game-changer – one that would truly allow “levelling up” for FE.

It was in the background all last year. It has been there every year, in fact. It’s the basic, universal awareness of what colleges are and what they do for society.

Its absence has driven use of the hashtag #andcolleges, which is an online retort to those individuals and organisations who simply omit a key sector of the UK educational ecosystem, and therefore the citizens it serves, from plans and communications.


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Great work has been done to try to turn the tide, with some victories. But in 2021, the sector and its supporters need to work more collaboratively, more tactically, with some overarching targets in mind, to ensure colleges become embedded at the forefront of the minds of politicians, businesses and the nation.

Since Covid-19 appeared, the lack of awareness has had even more prominence, starting back last spring, when several official announcements about the, er…slightly important topic of the global pandemic, happened to omit its impact on the 2.2 million people whom colleges educate and train every year. Why didn’t they deserve the same attention as those in other establishments?

And then, at a time when clear guidance for citizens was more necessary than ever, the real danger emerged of a slice of society being cut adrift, when we heard and saw media reports and graphics that told them only about what would be happening in “schools and universities”.

In parallel with these challenges, recognition of what colleges do, and could do more of, has actually been steadily improving. Awareness and policy interventions from government have increased over the past three years. Arguably, no prime minister or education secretary has included colleges more often in their speeches than the current incumbents. There is sheer economic necessity behind this, with the realisation that automation, Brexit and longer-term pandemic effects will significantly change the skills we will need as a nation. If the government is serious about “levelling up” the country, then colleges are “route one” to get there. We await the imminent White Paper with hope.

But there are still setbacks, distractions and battles that need to be fought constantly.

In some cases, the omissions of the college sector aren’t deliberate but have been caused by decades of individual experience and public policy.

The argument is that colleges are at the back of the mind of policymakers, the press and the “elites”. These people largely didn’t go to colleges nor do their children attend them now. This is, I think, correct and continues to have impact. The “aspirational route” for children – of A levels, then university – remains the commonly understood path in the UK. The fact that the college sector was shuttered away and significantly defunded for most of the past decade has added to the challenge of awareness.

If the reasons why colleges need greater prominence for the country’s good are clear, to go further we need to explore how we achieve this. How do we use the concept of #andcolleges to bring real, positive and lasting impact?

Nationally, the college sector is marshalling its arguments effectively. The Association of Colleges has become an effective campaigning organisation, while adding further to its deep expertise and public affairs capacity, to lever influence and cement relationships with government.

The Commission on the College of the Future has engaged widely and put forward a vision and ideas for debate. The CBI, British Chambers of Commerce and several think-tanks have been engaged and are on board.

Coverage of colleges, their courses and their students in some parts of the media, notably the BBC nationally, is improving.

#LoveOurColleges has harnessed relatable stories and a wide range of stakeholders to celebrate and explain the role of colleges.

Locally, as Ian Pryce, principal of Bedford College Group wrote in Tes in December, colleges are paying systematic attention to their local stakeholders to ensure understanding and, therefore, increase engagement and support. The wider social contribution that colleges are making in the pandemic has further illuminated our natural role as anchor institutions in our communities.

All of the above mean that the inclusion of colleges in policy, promotions and the national discourse is increasing. This is vital. But, as 2021 has already shown, with the BTEC exams debacle, which has enraged students, parents and most of the sector, there is much, much further to go and we cannot be complacent.

All decision makers need to be fully, not peripherally, aware of colleges, and hold them in enough trust and esteem to see them as the solution to many problems.

We need to continue to increase public awareness of colleges as a technical, academic and higher educational route so we can fulfil our potential for individuals, business and the country.

From government, we need the increased focus to keep growing, so that all aspects of college operations – for example the huge English and maths GCSE cohorts that colleges have to see through and, yes, vocational exams – are remembered and reflected in policy, resources and process, in a timely fashion.

In terms of the media, it would be great, by the end of 2021, to see colleges and our students’ interests included alongside schools and/or universities in every story where they are relevant. In the short term, regrettably, it might be about the management of Covid-19. Beyond that, for example, the higher education options in colleges should be mentioned alongside those in universities, and our 16-18 opportunities and apprenticeships alongside those in school sixth forms.

So, what do we do to achieve these goals? That’s a whole other article. But 2020 showed that collective understanding can lead to concerted, aligned and effective action.

I want to be optimistic that we can go further in 2021. I hope we do, so that we get closer to #andcolleges becoming redundant as a hashtag, and the beginning of work on the next goal for the status, awareness and communication of further education and its many benefits:

“Colleges and…”

Phil Sayles is principal and chief executive of Selby College

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