Could the next few weeks provide some certainty?

The period to Christmas should bring some short- and even medium-term certainty, writes Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes

David Hughes

Could the weeks leading up to Christmas provide some certainty to education?

Last week’s #CollegesWeek 2020 was a fitting celebration of everything we love about colleges. It was a great boost to morale in colleges and I was overwhelmed to see how much energy colleges put into the week given that the pandemic has been draining energy and resources since March.

Once again, we saw the creativity, commitment and pride college staff have as well as the impact on people, on places and on our economy. But it is over now for another year, and as it’s half term (in most places) it feels like a good time to reflect, take stock and think about the weeks ahead.

I’ll start by reflecting on how much the immediate, the urgent and the near term seems to keep crowding out the medium and long term in thinking and planning. For colleges, this has been exhausting, with too much uncertainty, lots of risks (health and safety, mental wellbeing, finances to name but a few) and confusion about the right courses of action. A degree of certainty about funding rules would certainly help for the academic year we are in, as would a simple and long-overdue adjustment to the payments profile so that it better reflects college costs.

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#CollegesWeek 2020: How colleges showed their love

Background: What will a one-year spending review mean for FE?

If I’m being optimistic, the period to Christmas should bring some short- and even medium-term certainty. The Department for Education and ESFA are working hard on providing some of the funding rule certainties, even though it does feel as though decisions take an interminably long time to be made in government right now. The Treasury might even allow ESFA to adjust the payments profile.

Beyond that, there’s the promise of a reforming White Paper and the possibility that the spending review will invest more on a skills-led recovery. Together they could give college leaders, staff, students and partners something tangible to celebrate this Christmas despite the restrictions we’ll all probably be facing in meeting up with family and friends.

Part of my optimism emanates from the widespread support we saw in #CollegesWeek and partly from the prime minister’s speech last month at Exeter College, where he pledged to deliver on the Augar review, levelling up and generations of a false divide between the so-called academic and the technical or practical. It really was great to hear the PM’s announcement of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee alongside confirmation that funding for the National Skills Fund will roll out from April 2021, but we need so much in the spending review to back up the rhetoric. The risk is that the "guarantee" and all of the fine words could easily look hollow because the NSF is only part of what is needed, welcome though it is.

At the very least, given the spending review is for one year only, we’ll be looking for the chancellor to invest in improved funding rates, higher bursary funds to support students, maintenance support for those in colleges, support for short-term intensive re-training and capital investment in technology as well as buildings. More than anything, we want the chancellor to pay colleges at a fair rate for the education and training they provide, after 10 years of cuts that have resulted in ridiculously low per-student funding rates.

But before we get to those big announcements, there are a few other obstacles to navigate. The first weeks in November will see thousands of young people and adults taking GCSE maths and English exams in colleges – the first written exams since the mess of the summer results.

Some colleges will have so many hundreds of learners sitting written exams that they will have to close the college to all other students. We’re as worried about the risks of students mixing outside of college, particularly after the exams in the afternoons, as we are to the disruptions to other students.

We’re also likely to see more Covid lockdowns across the country with college students facing disruptions to their studies potentially several times. Without access to a device, wi-fi or broadband and a quiet space to work in, many students will find it hard to continue their studies. For those on more practical courses, such as bricklaying, hospitality and catering, hair and beauty or engineering, learning at home can be very limiting indeed, even with the ingenuity and creativity of college lecturers. Digital poverty will therefore remain a major worry as most students this year will have to rely at least partly on online materials and activities.

Students are also clearly worried about what will happen next year for the 2021 exam series and assessments. It’s not easy for students to feel hopeful and optimistic when they are not clear about the rest of the academic year, so early decisions on what students can expect are vital. Already, we know that the pandemic has led to more calls on mental health support services and that pressure is unlikely to improve through the next six months.

As if that was not enough, college leadership teams and governing bodies are also wrestling with the almost impossible task of managing finances during so much uncertainty. The last academic year saw helpful support from the government for colleges, with protection for 16-19 study programmes, higher education funds and for the adult education budget. Together they make up around two-thirds of college income across the whole sector, although some colleges rely more heavily on apprenticeship, commercial and employer income all of which have been severely hit.

For this year, though, colleges are still not certain about how far they can rely on those budgets, what learning will count, whether any monies will be clawed back if a college needs to temporarily close, what will happen if work experience or practical assessments are not possible, nor whether any of the substantial additional costs of covid will be reimbursed. We estimate that colleges have already spent around £100 million on delivering safely for students, and those costs continue to rise. The catch-up funding allocated to colleges (£96 million) was hugely important but even now we are seeing signs that it is not enough, while many of the funds for schools are not being fully utilised.

#CollegesWeek allowed all of us to celebrate what we love about colleges. I just hope that the next eight weeks will allow us to do the same at Christmas. I’m hopeful, but the last seven months has shown all of us that the future really is hard to predict.

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David Hughes

David Hughes

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

Find me on Twitter @AoCDavidH

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