For all of us it’s hard to focus on anything beyond the now. A brighter future feels remote on a cold, dark, Covid January morning. Hope is in short supply. The rollout of the vaccine must cheer us, but there will be much to worry us before we are free.
Lifting our heads to the future takes an effort. That’s why the FE White Paper, published last week, is welcome, almost irrespective of what it actually says. The publication itself signals an intent to reprioritise our further education and skills sector and to, in the phrase of the moment, build back better. It is a laudable intent.
Colleges, like so many parts of the economy, have pivoted and adapted, moving our curriculum and support online and building our students’ knowledge and skills remotely. It has been a challenge but I am proud of how far our sector has come in the past year and how much we have collectively learned. It speaks well of our resilience and ability to adapt.
Post-16 reform: The announcements at a glance
So, in the context of a sector always eager to do more, we have been quietly optimistic ahead of the White Paper. At first sight, it feels like a bit of a letdown. Rather a watering down of the promised rebased relationship between the centre and the sector. When it’s your day job, it’s easy to focus on the technical rather than the substantive, and I fear that the lessons of the recent past about how adult learners feel about loans as a way of funding their learning have been forgotten.
I’m disappointed, too, that the language of the Ney report, a more collaborative and nurturing relationship between colleges and their oversight bodies, has been overtaken by the deficit-driven retreat to introduce new powers to intervene.
FE White Paper: A genuine skills community is a bold ambition
But I may be being a little hasty. There is the core of something quite different here. Something innovative and exciting. The proposed new relationship between employers and colleges is not new at all. We’ve been about that throughout our history, long before the Leitch review or "colleges at the heart of the system".
What seems to be different here is the new college business centres. Old cynics will hear that as centres of vocational excellence, the well-funded but short-lived initiative of two decades ago. But there is the opportunity for it to be something different. The prize, I think, is a genuine skills community, where local employers and colleges work side-by-side to design qualifications, transfer knowledge and develop collaborative approaches to our perennial skills shortages. That’s a bold ambition. It does require a shift in the rhetoric – colleges and employers must jointly shape the implementation here; if it’s only the latter, then we will miss the realities on execution and risk failure.
Last week, the University of Oxford was given a record-breaking £100 million for new medical research. That’s a breathtaking investment for a single institution. It will work because of the coming together of funding, technical and scientific expertise, employers and political will.
The promise of the FE White Paper is more modest but it doesn’t need to be. A real revolution in the way all parts of the skills sector work could hold similar promise. A bold, new model of collaboration between employers and colleges will benefit all of us. It’s an opportunity for a brighter future that we shouldn’t miss.
Gerry McDonald is the group principal and CEO at New City College