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Editorial: Embrace reform and learn to love the levy

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While the start of a new year inevitably prompts reflection on the past 12 months and anticipation of the year to come, the advent of 2016 brings an even greater sense of transition than usual.

Make no mistake, early preparation for the government’s reforms that will have the greatest impact on FE – the devolution agenda, the apprenticeship levy and the area reviews of college provision – may have got under way in 2015, but it is only as the months progress that we will start to get a clear picture of exactly what the implications for the sector will be. 

There is a certain symbolism in that many of the big names that have dominated FE in recent times will not be around to witness the next phase in its evolution. Most poignant was the death on New Year’s Eve of Peter Roberts, the much-loved former principal of Leeds City College, just weeks after he retired from the institution which he had helped to build into one of the most successful providers in the country.

The number of tributes to his warmth, wit and passion for improving the lives of the thousands of young people he worked with are evidence of his legacy, and Peter will be much missed.

The year just gone also saw the retirement of many other big names in FE, not least the 157 Group’s Lynne Sedgmore. It was also announced that the leader of one of the other main membership bodies in FE, Martin Doel at the Association of Colleges, will be moving on to pastures new, albeit remaining in the sector to take up the inaugural Further Education Trust for Leadership professorship for further education and skills, based at the UCL Institute of Education.

The former president of the AoC, Richard Atkins, who along with Mr Doel was made a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List, will be retiring shortly, as will the Sixth Form Colleges Association’s chief executive, David Igoe. 

And the changing of the guard was most succinctly represented by the renaming of adult learning body Niace, which (on New Year’s Day, no less) was reborn as the Learning and Work Institute, following its merger with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion.

With skills minister Nick Boles making no secret of his desire to see a smaller number of colleges offering FE provision in England, Niace will by no means be the last pillar of the sector to end up with a new sign above its door.

Inevitably, though, endings bring new beginnings. Among the many bright young talents emerging in the sector, particularly worthy of recognition is Robin Ferguson, believed to be the first student with a learning difficulty or disability to be elected as a committee member of the NUS students’ union. As he puts it: “2015 has been a year to remember for me personally. In 2016, I’m hoping to come back fighting and make history again.” 

While it may take some time for the long-term implications of chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement to become clear, there is no escaping the fact that the cuts for FE could have been much worse (if you bump into anyone from the Office for Budget Responsibility, you should probably buy them a pint by way of thanks for their economic forecasts, which proved to be far more optimistic than many had expected – or indeed hoped for). 

Severe pressures undoubtedly remain, but it is up to the sector to make the best use of the opportunity it has to prove why it deserves the more-favourable-than-expected hand that it has been dealt. Unless FE plays along with the government’s agenda by embracing reform and learning to love the levy, next time the outcome could well be far more worrying.

@stephenexley

This is an article from the 8 January edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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