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Editorial: 'What FE needs is unity, not a trio of D-list celebs'

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It’s been a funny old week in FE. It started on a somewhat surreal note, with a Sunday paper bringing together the unlikely threesome of Sean Bean, Ainsley Harriott and David Blunkett in a call for better funding for colleges. While it’s hard to see what the only actor ever to play Odysseus with a Sheffield accent has managed to bring to the debate on reforming the sector, it’s best not to look a gift ’oss – wooden or otherwise – in the mouth, even if it comes in the shape of a D-list celebrity endorsement.

But it’s hard to look quite so charitably upon another offering that came the sector’s way the following day. David Cameron announced plans for a £20 million fund to provide English language teaching for women in the most isolated Muslim communities, to allow them to integrate better into society. This would all be very well, were it not for the fact that English for speakers of other languages (Esol) courses across the country were axed following the removal of around £45 million in funding for Esol plus mandation courses just last July.

While Mr Cameron insisted that his latest offering would help to “bring Britain together and build the stronger society that is within reach”, the Association of Colleges rightly pointed out that extending the programme beyond the Muslim community, and addressing the £160 million drop in Esol funding since 2008, might have more impact.

On the theme of bringing disparate communities together, in this week’s magazine Ross Anderson argues powerfully that the FE and HE sectors “belong together”. Tensions between the sectors have been on the rise, with both competing for the same pot of cash at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) – and increasingly competing for learners, too. And this appears to be a genuine two-way movement, with colleges dipping into the HE market while universities dabble in FE provision.

Anderson argues that it’s time for institutions in both sectors to stop being defensive and to embrace the prospect of “mergers, acquisitions and collaborations”. Accepting this approach is easier said than done, but it can bring far-reaching benefits. On my visit to Peterborough Regional College last week, principal Terry Jones expressed support for plans to create a university in the city to raise the aspirations of its young people – even if it might mean his college ceding some influence over the project and forming alliances with new partners.

Partnership working, Mr Jones believes, offers greater potential for shared responsibilities, expertise and benefits for the region, which outweigh institutional self-interest. It is this kind of approach – “a willingness to change for the greater good, irrespective of vested interests and personal preferences”, as FE commissioner David Collins put it last year – which it is hoped that area reviews will engender.

And at the heart of the government’s vision for post-16 provision are the new institutes of technology (IoTs). Despite plenty of fanfare, Bis has remained silent on exactly what they will look like. But encouragingly, as our story opposite shows, colleges are stepping up with ideas as to how IoTs will fit into the FE landscape.

There are plenty of questions to be answered about exactly what shape these institutions will take, let alone whether they will deliver as many engineers and technicians as the government is banking on. And plenty of cynicism remains about whether the area reviews will lead to the radical transformation intended. But it is only by institutions letting their guard down and working together that genuine transformation will occur. If they get it right, they won’t even need Ainsley Harriott to cook up some favourable headlines.


This is an article from the 22 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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