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The FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

The FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

Welsh FE sector `comes of age' with proposed bill - 1 May 2013

A new bill that could give colleges in Wales greater freedoms was proposed this week, with education minister Leighton Andrews saying that the FE sector had "come of age".

The plans would remove a number of legal restrictions and controls on colleges while - ministers in the principality hope - increasing their capacity and flexibility.

It reverses plans by the Office for National Statistics to reclassify colleges as "central government bodies", which would have meant them coming under Welsh government control. The FE sector claimed this would have increased bureaucracy and been financially damaging.

ColegauCymru, which represents all of Wales' 18 FE institutions, said the bill recognises the "maturity" of the sector, as well as the government's lack of appetite for the task of managing its combined annual income of around pound;460 million.

But not everyone is happy. Teachers' union the ATL is strongly opposed to further autonomy and said that FE colleges should be more accountable to the taxpayer, not less.

It added that many of the sector's successes in the past decade had come about as a result of government control, and warned that less control could equal less success.

But Mr Andrews said the new freedoms would not translate as "taking pressure off colleges". If they fail to live up to his high expectations, the bill contains significant new powers for the Welsh government to intervene. In extreme circumstances, governing bodies could be removed or institutions forced to collaborate.

Darren Evans

Chartered status for the best colleges is a go. But the details remain as clear as mud - 30 April 2013

As far as the FE sector is concerned, Lord Lingfield - formerly Robert Balchin - is fast earning a reputation for being the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' go-to peer. Fresh from publishing a report on professionalism in the sector last year, he has now been tasked with chairing a newly created chartered status steering panel.

Creating a chartered status for FE institutions, the theory goes, will offer a Kitemark to recognise the best-performing colleges and providers. A consultation on the plans ended in January, and the sector is still awaiting the department's response.

But while it is still unclear exactly what chartered status will represent, a department spokesman told TES that Lord Lingfield has been asked to assemble a steering panel before Parliament breaks for the summer recess.

After a formal launch in November, the panel will be responsible for assessing all applications for chartered status. The first colleges and providers are expected to be awarded the status in early 2014.

So now all we need to know is what it will actually mean. It is about as clear as mud.

Stephen Exley

Burnham wins plaudits for call to ban zero hours contracts - 29 April 2013

Within the education union movement, there have of late been plenty of murmurings of discontent about Stephen Twigg. Indeed, many trade unionists have taken to Twitter to voice their concerns that the shadow education secretary has failed to lay a glove on his opposite number, Michael Gove.

In contrast, Andy Burnham - Mr Twigg's predecessor in the education hot seat - may have now moved on to the shadow health portfolio but he has been garnering plenty of plaudits in the teaching union Twittersphere after yesterday calling for Labour to ban "zero hours contracts" at the next election.

A zero hours contract is one in which the employer does not guarantee the employee a fixed number of hours of work per week. Rather, the employee is expected to be on call in case work does crop up, in which case they would only be paid for the number of hours worked. This kind of contract has been growing in popularity among FE employers, much to the trade unions' chagrin, meaning the post-16 education sector is the UK's second most casualised workforce, second only to the hospitality industry.

While this has not yet become official party policy, Mr Burnham told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that he gave his backing to a "living wage" being implemented to address the issue of low pay. He went on: "I would say to Ed, personally, go further and ban things like zero hours contracts. That is a Labour response to the debate about work and benefits."

Mr Burnham is certainly in touch with the FE sector: his brother Nick is principal of Cardinal Newman College in Preston. But whether many other principals would be in favour of a blanket ban on zero hours contracts remains to be seen.

Not surprisingly, though, the health secretary's intervention has proved particularly popular with the University and College Union (UCU), which has long campaigned about the "increasing casualisation" of the FE and higher education workforce.

UCU has an ongoing Stamp Out Casual Contracts campaign, intended to clamp down on the practice. General secretary Sally Hunt told TES: "UCU has campaigned against casualisation in all its forms, which is a blight to further and higher education bringing with it inefficiency, inequality and personal stress. Zero hours contracts make workers extremely vulnerable as they obliterate job security. People on these contracts have no way of knowing if they will be able to pay their mortgage from one month to the next."

We will have to wait a bit longer to learn whether Mr Burnham's colleagues on the Labour front bench agree.

Stephen Exley

Funding gap grows for poverty-struck 16-19 sector - 25th April

Bodies representing secondary schools and FE colleges have joined forces to press the government for urgent action on the growing funding gap in 16-19 education.

The six associations, including the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the Association of Colleges (AoC), have written a joint letter to education secretary Michael Gove urging reform in the next comprehensive funding review.

Their letter warns that, faced with funding cuts, schools and colleges are being forced to make savings that are adversely affecting their students. Examples include cutting tutorial support, reducing teaching time, increasing class sizes and discontinuing less popular courses such as languages, further maths and economics.

The associations present evidence showing that in 2011-12 the median funding income per student aged 14-16 in secondary schools was pound;5,620, while in universities the average fee per student was pound;8,414.

Meanwhile, the average level of funding for a 16- to 19-year-old in schools and colleges was pound;4,645, and this is predicted to drop to less than pound;4,400 by 2015. Furthermore, colleges are required to pay VAT, while universities receive significant additional funding through access agreements.

The letter calls for the next comprehensive spending review to re-evaluate the resources needed for a good education for all 16- to 19-year-olds in state education.

"It is important that education for this age group is appropriately funded, particularly as the age at which young people are required to continue in education or training increases to 17 this year and 18 in 2015," it states.

The anger and concern over the situation was plain to see at the ASCL annual conference earlier this year. David Grigg, ASCL funding committee chair and principal of Lord Lawson of Beamish Academy in County Durham, said that sixth forms in smaller, rural schools were being put at risk of closure by the pressures.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said work on the next spending review period was ongoing and no decisions had yet been taken.

"We are also raising the age of compulsory participation in education to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015. As the participation age increases, we are providing funding to ensure schools and colleges can offer places in education or training to all young people who want them."

Darren Evans

Wales' FE sector faces the big squeeze - 24 April 2013

The rapidly changing face of Wales' FE college sector is vividly illustrated in a new research paper published by the National Assembly this week.

The document comes after a series of mergers over the past five years has caused the total number of further education institutions in Wales to drop from 25 to 18.

A further three mergers are expected to take place by August, reducing the total to 15, and several other institutions have approached the Welsh government for funding to support their business cases for merger.

Funding for the sector now stands at pound;311.9 million, up 2.9 per cent on last year. A further 1 per cent rise is expected for the next academic year.

However, the total number of learners at Welsh colleges dropped by 22 per cent between 2006-7 and 2010-11, down from 251,280 to 195,900. Staff numbers also fell, although not as drastically. In 2010-11, colleges employed 8,810 staff, compared with 9,035 in 2006-7, a drop of 2.5 per cent.

The mergers created several huge new institutions and left a number of smaller colleges struggling to make up numbers; the country's biggest, Grwp Llandrillo Menai, now has 29,430 learners, while its smallest, Merthyr Tydfil College, has only 635.

The largest number of learning activities in 2010-11 were in courses aimed at preparation for life and work (41.3 per cent), followed by ICT (9.9 per cent) and then health, public services and care (8.7 per cent).

And even more changes are afoot in Wales. The government aims to put in place a new planning and funding system for colleges for 2014-15, based on learner outcomes rather than demand.

A bill currently going through the Assembly also proposes changes to give colleges more responsibility to manage their own affairs.

Darren Evans

Sixth-form colleges move towards offering degrees for the first time - 17 April 2013

Last year, a small number of sixth-form colleges won directly funded higher education (HE) places for the first time. Now, some of them have formed a partnership with Middlesex University to develop new degree-level courses.

The formation of what the colleges are calling the Caxton Group is the latest stage in sixth-form colleges' increasing diversification into HE.

The group grew out of the work of Winchester's Peter Symonds College with Middlesex University in creating a range of foundation degrees in subjects from counselling to sports injury treatment, followed by BA courses.

Now they have been joined by King Edward VI College in the West Midlands, Cardinal Newman College in Lancashire and Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge - and they hope to attract more members.

The university will help the colleges develop courses that meet gaps in demand for their local economies, and they have applied to the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Catalyst Fund to support joint projects such as online learning.

It is an unusual move for Middlesex, however, at a time when universities are more likely to be ending old franchise partnerships than forging new collaborations.

But Melvyn Keen, deputy chief executive of the university, said that the partnership would not involve Middlesex passing on any of its allocation of students to the colleges; its role would simply be to accredit the courses.

He said that from the university perspective, the expected climate of competition with FE colleges over HE had not occurred, and that each sector was concentrating on different parts of the market in a fairly collaborative spirit. "It's not like for-profit providers," he said. "That's where we see potentially real competition."

Mr Keen also doesn't expect the numbers of students in the Caxton Group to be very large. That is probably because the government has refused to significantly raise the number of low-cost HE places that colleges can bid for through the core and margin system - it was worried that colleges were winning too many of them.

Without the potential for growth, will the Caxton Group be anything more than a niche concern?

Joseph Lee

How progressive.Vince Cable increases minimum wage for apprentices - 15 April 2013

Business secretary Vince Cable has rejected calls to freeze the minimum wage for apprentices because employers are failing to pay it, and has instead promised "tough new measures" of enforcement.

Mr Cable made the pledge as he announced details of the new minimum wage, following the report of the Low Pay Commission.

Although the LPC suggested freezing apprentice pay, Mr Cable instead raised it by 3p to pound;2.68 an hour for the first year of the apprenticeship (after which apprentices get the standard minimum for their age group).

"Apprenticeships are at the heart of our goal to support a stronger economy, and so it is important to continue to make them attractive to young people. Therefore, I am not taking forward the LPC's recommendation to freeze the apprenticeship rate due to non-compliance, but instead am raising it in line with the youth rates," Mr Cable said.

"We are working on a series of tough new measures to ensure we tackle non-compliance issues across the board."

A report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills last year found that 20 per cent of apprentices reported being paid below the minimum. The problem has become more widespread as apprenticeship numbers have risen: in 2007, only 5 per cent reported being underpaid.

Worst of all, 5 per cent of apprentices received no pay at all, a figure that was higher if they were under 18, from an ethnic minority or working towards a childcare apprenticeship.

The findings prompted a campaign by Unionlearn, which said that underpayment overall was too high for employers, pointing out that nearly half of hairdressing apprentices received less than the minimum wage. When the campaign was launched in November, TES was able to find apprenticeships offering just pound;1.41 an hour advertised on the National Apprenticeship Service website.

So far, HM Revenue amp; Customs, which enforces the minimum wage, has had a policy of prosecuting only in "selective and exemplary" cases. Perhaps it's time that changed.

Joseph Lee

Rochdale sixth-form college beats the odds to be labelled outstanding - 12 April 2013

Thanks to the government's single-minded focus on the expansion of the academies and free schools programme, the last sixth-form college to open was in 2010.

But given that the institution in question - Rochdale Sixth Form College in Lancashire - was today pronounced outstanding in its first Ofsted inspection, perhaps ministers should give the sector a closer look.

While members of the Sixth Form Colleges' Assocation (SFCA) are renowned for their academic excellence, their newest member is certainly not blessed with an affluent catchment area. As the Ofsted report points out, unemployment in Rochdale is higher than the national average and there are "significant levels of deprivation". As a result, traditionally only a small proportion of the area's students go on to university.

But not any more. Students at the college "make excellent progress and most achieve their A-level qualifications and progress to university," the inspection report states. "A culture of high expectations permeates the college at all levels," it adds.

Teaching at the college is described as "energetic and often inspirational", and principal Julian Appleyard was no doubt delighted to hear effusive praise for the college's "outstanding leadership, excellent communications and exceptional governance".

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the SFCA, was equally pleased. "It just goes to show that if you invest in a sixth-form college, you can get very significant positive returns in a short space of time," he told TES.

But while the message is undoubtedly a positive one, given the absence of the A-word in the institution's title it remains to be seen whether anyone in the Department for Education will actually be listening.

Stephen Exley

NUS goes further: union elects its first president from FE - 10 April 2013

In 2004, Kat Fletcher, then president of the National Union of Students, declared the union to be "deficient" in its representation of FE students, which make up the majority of its members.

The union overhauled its approach to colleges in the wake of her comment, ensuring that only FE students could vote for the vice-president representing them and focusing more of its campaigning efforts beyond universities.

Yesterday, that effort culminated in the election of the first NUS president not to have studied for a degree, Toni Pearce. The former Cornwall College student told TES: "When I first came to NUS conference, I didn't think that it would be possible for me or someone like me to be national president."

And the world of FE was certainly pleased, if the reaction on the Twitter hashtag #feparty was anything to go by.

At the NUS conference in Sheffield yesterday the new vice-president for FE, Joe Vinson, was also elected. He follows in the footsteps of Ms Pearce, having come from her old job as Cornwall College student union president.

How long before we have the second NUS president to come from FE?

You can read more about Pearce's plans as president in Friday's TES magazine.

Joseph Lee

Celebrating the best of FE's ex-students - 05 April 2013

Comedian and Mock the Week panellist Russell Howard heads the list of recipients of this year's Association of Colleges Gold Awards, the annual recognition of former college students who have excelled in their fields.

A former student of Alton College in Hampshire, Mr Howard revisited his alma mater in 2011 to record footage for his Right Here, Right Now DVD and once explained that Teen Wolf was his favourite film because it reminded him of his time studying A levels there.

Are Alton College students particularly hairy or something?

Also among the winners of the awards, which aim to highlight how FE and sixth-form colleges contribute to Britain's success stories, are sport stars Hannah Cockroft, who won two gold medals in wheelchair sprints at last year's Paralympics, and England rugby player Maggie Alphonsi.

Here's the rundown of the full list of winners:

- Maggie Alphonsi, England rugby player, Hertford Regional College- Paul Barron, business consultant, Lincoln College- Hannah Cockroft, Paralympic double gold medallist, Calderdale College, West Yorkshire- Professor Chris Day, pro-vice chancellor and professor of liver medicine at Newcastle University, Tyne Metropolitan College- Greg Fitzgerald, chief executive of Galliford Try plc, South Devon College- Adam Gray, executive chef, Skylon Restaurant at the Southbank Centre, Northampton College- Russell Howard, comedian, Alton College, Hampshire- Sarah Longthorn, founder of designer wellington boot company WedgeWelly, Hull College

Let's hear it for colleges and their fabulous protgs.Joseph Lee

Could the new FE commissioner force `failing FE colleges' into UTCs or for-profit sector? - 3 April 2013

Control of failing colleges will in future pass to an FE commissioner appointed by ministers, who will have the power to shut them down.

The skills strategy, Rigour and responsiveness in skills, published today, sets out a new intervention regime if colleges trigger any of three conditions: an inadequate grade from Ofsted, a failure to meet the Skills Funding Agency's (SFA) minimum standards of performance, or poor financial management.

The strategy creates a new "administered college" status, where institutions lose the right to freedom from centralised targets and controls, and cannot make decisions about staffing and expenditure without approval of the commissioner.

Alternatively, the commissioner can remove some or all of the governing body, or dissolve the college entirely. In that case, the strategy says that provision could be handed to free schools, university technical colleges (UTCs), sixth-form colleges or any SFA provider, which could include private profit-making organisations.

"It is wholly unacceptable that nearly one and half million learners are not receiving teaching that is rated as good," said FE minister Matthew Hancock, although the intervention does not encompass colleges in the "requires improvement" grade. "Where colleges are failing learners we will be knocking on their doors and take swift and effective action."

The Association of Colleges said it was rare for failing colleges not to be able to improve on their own, with only one college in the past five years receiving successive failing grades. Under the new strategy, only under "exceptional" circumstances will colleges be given 12 months to improve without government intervention.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, warned that dissolving colleges could be "privatisation by the back door". "The emphasis on failing colleges is disappointing at a time when private companies have made no secret of their desire to move into areas of post-16 education that they believe might turn a profit. There must be clear protection of public assets and a transparent process for any intervention in our colleges," she said.

Joseph Lee

Journey into the unknown - navigating the new landscape of FE loans proves challenging - 2 April 2013

Further education loans for over-24s taking level 3 courses were launched on Monday, largely unnoticed by a world busy with April fools' day jokes and the Easter break. But students trying to pick a course, understand how much it will cost and find the best place to study will soon become all too aware of the new system.

This afternoon, I put myself in the shoes of someone looking for an access-to-HE course to work out what the difficulties might be. It wasn't a great experience, and it left me wondering why FE loans have been launched without the involvement of a watchdog - something like the Office for Fair Access, say, or even a price comparison website.

First stop was my local college, City and Islington. Through its website, I was able to discover fairly quickly that all its access courses arepriced at pound;1,495.But is that a lot or a little for this option?

So I checked out a college that would be handy for work - City Lit, which is just around the corner frommy office in central London. But when I visited its website, no new access courses were listed.

Having emailed the college's PR team, I now know that new courses for September will be listed on the site from June. A member of the public could not do that - although they could ring up, of course. But what we're looking for here is price transparency, which turns out to be rare.

Next I tried the National Careers Service website, although I'm not convinced many would-be students would know about it. That gave meplenty of options but the information on fees was extremely patchy.

A few colleges were forthcoming: take a bow, Westminster Kingsway (pound;1,600) and South Thames College (pound;1,250 - information not easily available on the college's own website).

But several othercolleges instruct you to call them for prices.This is price transparency la the notoriously shifty gym industry.Colleges shouldsurely hold themselves to a higher standard than that.

Waltham Forest charges pound;1,452 for access courses according to its own website, but Kensington and Chelsea and Lambeth offer no prices that I can find. Newham College's website offers a confusing table with achoose-your-own-adventure depending on your age and prior qualifications but which didn't give a firm figure in the end.

The options didn't end there for the National Careers Service. Based on my North London postcode, it also suggested Aquinas College, a sixth-form college with adult provision based in Stockport, Cheshire.It would charge me pound;2,500 for an access course, and a lot more in travel and sanity.

That example is absurd but it shows how difficult it is simply to compare the cost of equivalent courses in your area. The Skills Funding Agency couldn't tell me the average cost of a course, only that the allowablemaximum rates ranged from pound;336 for a general studies A-levelup to pound;9,621 for an advanced apprenticeship in instrument pipefitting. That's not much help.

When loans for higher education were introduced, the Office for Fair Access wasset up to provide centralised information about feesas well as to hold universities to account on their prices.

But there's no one looking out for FE students, who now face price variations of severalhundred pounds with little information to support their choice.

Joseph Lee

More bad news for take-up of apprenticeships among under-19s - 29 March 2013

The latest apprenticeship figures confirm two trends that emerged with the first-quarter numbers in January: efforts to shift apprenticeships to higher levels of achievement are working, but at the cost of opportunities for under-19s.

But it isn't a straight swap: the numbers for under-19s are falling faster than the rise in advanced apprentices, while the numbers of older apprentices at level 2 are also falling, causing overall numbers to drop by 4.5 per cent to 245,000.

According to the figures published today, the numbers of 16- to 19-year-olds starting apprenticeships are nearly 10,000 down on the same time last year, with 69,600 starts compared with 79,100.

The trend is showing no sign of improvement: the first-quarter figures were down by just under 10 per cent, and in the second quarter they have fallen by 18 per cent.

While the largest number of apprentices are recruited in the first quarter, starting in August, the decline doesn't provide any reassurance that the government has got to grips with what it called in January a "major challenge within a difficult economic climate".

The good news is that its message to recruit more apprentices at level 3 and above is being received by employers and training providers.

The number of advanced apprentices rose by more than 5,000 to 95,200, although the second-quarter figures themselves aren't better than last year's. Higher apprenticeships reached 3,000, up from 1,900 this time last year.

It seems likely that the two trends are at least partly linked. At level 2, more or less the same numbers of apprentices start in all three groups: under-19s, 19- 24, and 25-plus. By level 3, the numbers of under-19s are about half of the over-25s.

Shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden accused the government of "complacency" over apprenticeship figures, which are suffering their first fall after nearly doubling in two years. He criticised the refusal to support Labour's plans requiring any companies with government contracts worth pound;1 million or more to employ apprentices.

"These figures are disappointing and deeply alarming," he said. "Yet only two weeks ago, they voted against our proposals to use public procurement to create thousands of new apprenticeships for young people and deliver that step change - an action that is even more incredible when you consider the numbers of apprenticeships for young people are down 12 per cent."

In the parliamentary debate earlier this month, business minister Michael Fallon said the government supported linking procurement and apprenticeships, but claimed the Labour motion had technical errors that would mean it would include all government contracts, including those with public bodies such as local councils.

The government is instead placing some of its hopes for improvement in traineeships, new six-month courses for people who aren't ready for apprenticeships. But with the programme due to launch in September, and no details finalised yet, how much impact can they have?

Joseph Lee

ATL delegates demand free school meals be extended to FE students - 25 March 2013

The Association of Colleges' "No Free Lunch?" campaign was formed to highlight the disparity that means post-16 students in school sixth forms receive free school meals, while their counterparts in FE and sixth-form colleges do not.

The campaign has been steadily gaining momentum and today the issue was under the spotlight at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference in Liverpool. The first motion of the conference, proposed by Richard Salter of Somerset, criticised the "unfair" anomaly, and called on the union's executive to "lobby the government so that young people eligible for free school meals in the maintained sector continue to receive free school meals in all FE provision".

The problem is particularly significant, he told delegates, as 794,000 young people in the 16-18 bracket - almost twice as many as are educated in schools - go to colleges. Of these, 103,000 would be eligible for a free lunch if they went to a school.

The situation has worsened since the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, Mr Salter added, leaving many teenagers facing "significant challenges to continue their education" - especially in those areas where they have no choice but to go to a college.

Clare Kellett, a teacher at West Somerset Community College - a school, confusingly - spoke of an incident involving one of her students, Jess, who "has toast for breakfast and supper because that's all that she can afford". The school has been able to provide her with lunch. "Had we been an FE college, Jess would not have had any lunch that day, or the day before, or the next. It's as simple as that," she said. "That's the level of poverty we're dealing with."

While ministers have acknowledged that the status quo is an unintentional historical anomaly, they have not signalled any intention to rectify the situation.

After unanimously voting to support the motion, delegates in Liverpool gave a clear indication that they feel the time has come to act.

Stephen Exley

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