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Colleges: area reviews risk 'shotgun marriages', Labour warns

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This is an edited version of an article in the 9 October edition of TES. To read the full article, subscribe to TES

College sector reform, including the controversial area reviews, could lead to “huge alienation” because of the way it is being carried out, the shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden has warned.

Mr Marsden told TES that he feared the reviews – which are already underway in some parts of the country – were predominantly motivated by the severe funding cuts in further education. Early indications from regions undergoing the process showed that colleges could be “forced into shotgun marriages”, he added.

The reviews should also take in sixth-form free schools and academies, because colleges “could not operate in silos”, he said. “This will affect everything across the sector,” he stressed, adding that the local geography and economic conditions of some regions should also be taken into account.

Failing to do so risked affecting learners severely, the Labour MP for Blackpool South emphasised. “FE is all about getting students into work in the local economy,” he said.

While there might be a case for reform, the process should not be “micromanaged”, he added, warning that discussions had not started “from the bottom up” and had failed to focus on the quality of teaching and learning.

“Those area reviews have nothing to do with that at all. If you look at the letter the government has sent to principals, it is clear that it is about money and not teaching,” the MP said. “I warn the government that if they do not take due diligence in this area, it will lead to huge alienation in the sector. They might also find themselves at some point under judicial review.” The process was “helter-skelter” and “top-heavy”. he added.

Mr Marsden was first elected to Parliament in 1997. He was appointed shadow skills minister by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn last month, and will report to shadow education secretary Lucy Powell and shadow business secretary Angela Eagle. On the day of his appointment, the MP tweeted that he was “delighted to be back”, having previously held the position between 2010 and 2013.

‘Big bang approach’

Mr Marsden also questioned the implementation of the apprenticeship levy announced by chancellor George Osborne as part of the Budget earlier this year. The consultation on the scheme ended last week, and the levy, to be paid by large companies, is expected to help fund the government’s target of 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020.

“The principle of a contribution is one that should be explored. But I am nervous about the idea that again this may be a big bang approach,” the shadow minister said. “The government should be listening to the measured concerns about how this is taken forward and implemented.”

A levy scheme had worked well in construction, but this had been “on the basis of a long period of bedding down and agreement across the sector”, Mr Marsden said.

Despite the many challenges the sector was facing, Mr Marsden said he remained “always very hopeful for FE”, because of the commitment of FE staff and the fact the sector had “the opportunity to open so many doors for people”.

The labour market was changing dramatically and education had to change along with that, he said, adding: “The world of work people go into now is not three years of [college or university training] and that is it. It is much more multifaceted. People will go in and out of [higher education], FE, part-time or distance – all of those elements are there.”

To enable that, a 21st-century approach was needed, which should include ways of effectively transferring credit from one form of education to another. The sector must “not get stuck in short-term centralised 20th-century models”, Mr Marsden said.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said: “The government has decided to include school and academy provision within the reviews but not as part of the recommendations. We suspect this was a political decision rather than one based in the best interests of all 16-19s.

“We expect the unsustainable nature of much school post-16 provision will become evident as the reviews take place. AoC will be asking local councils and regional schools commissioners about the future of sixth-form provision in their respective areas. In addition, the government should refrain from opening any new post-16 provision while area reviews are taking place.”

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was unavailable for comment.

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