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'Dear Santa...please give colleges a new relationship with government this Christmas'

Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes reflects on a relatively successful 2017 - but has a couple of requests for Father Christmas

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Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes reflects on a relatively successful 2017 - but has a couple of requests for Father Christmas

It’s that time of year when we all think about our Christmas wish lists and whether we’ve behaved well enough for Santa to oblige.

I’ve always thought that for most civil servants, top of their wish list - alongside box sets of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It – must be leading on new legislation in the new year. Unfortunately, for most of them outside the Brexit arena, they will have to make do with the box sets this year. Legislation in education is very unlikely.

The result is that the focus of the Department for Education will have to be on implementation of policy and the many new initiatives announced in the recent Budget, industrial strategy and social mobility action plan. That’s plenty to be getting on with for the 300-plus people now working on post-16 issues (a big increase on recent years, by the way).

I’m not unhappy about that, because I’ve always believed that policy implementation is always the place to focus energy, and it plays to the pragmatist in me. I’ve spent the past 20 years in further education strenuously trying to remind people that even the most beautiful polices often fail and usually have perverse outcomes once they enter the real world. So, no need to put more focus on colleges on my Christmas wish list.

'Good news for colleges'

Thankfully, the attitudes and approaches being taken by DfE civil servants seem to acknowledge these risks; or, at the very least, they are making a positive out of the mess the government is in and just getting on with things as they are. I got a sense of that at the launch by Justine Greening of the social mobility action plan last week. The lack of a strong government seems to be allowing the secretary of state for education to get on with her strong personal commitment to social mobility and to post-16 issues. Both are good news for colleges as the key drivers of social mobility and as central to the success of education for young people and adults.

So, a pragmatic and intelligent assessment of what’s not working, what can be improved and how to implement new policy is slap bang in my wish list territory. Allied with that pragmatism is a sensible and generous desire by civil servants to work with us at the Association of Colleges and engage colleges in the assessment and the implementation. This is partly the new culture of the civil service and partly driven by the secretary of state herself. The result is the prospect of much better judgements and informed decisions. More of that for me please, Santa, in 2018.

'A new relationship' 

Given those positives, it’s probably pushing it to ask for more but I’ll give it a go and hope I’ve behaved well enough to be rewarded. What I’d really like to see more than anything else in 2018 is a resetting of the place of colleges in our education system and a new relationship with government. For me, colleges are true community and social assets and are essential for improved social mobility and productivity. Increasingly, they are being recognised for that but they need a relationship reset to help them deliver more for their communities, students and employers: a relationship of trust, respect, understanding and one which recognises the need to invest in colleges and allow them the freedom to flourish.

So, Santa, not much to ask – and in line with the direction of travel in the past year. Just imagine the joy it will bring to so many if you can deliver it – to students, to employers, to those keen to help achieve greater social justice and economic success in our country. Is it too much to ask?

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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