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

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The grim reality of life as a neet - 16 July 2013

The grim reality of life as a "Neet" - not in education, employment or training - is exposed today in a wide-ranging survey of more than 1,000 young people in England.

While nine in ten of those classed as Neet want to be in work, education or training, a third feel they have no chance of ever getting a job.

More than a third (37 per cent) say they rarely leave the house, 40 per cent feel they are not part of society and 33 per cent have suffered depression.

The University and College Union (UCU), which commissioned the survey as part of its Knowledge Economy campaign, described the results as "heartbreaking" and called for a new contract between society and the young.

When asked what they considered to be the main barriers stopping them finding work or study almost half (47 per cent) said their lack of experience held them back, a quarter said they lacked confidence and 28 per cent cited a lack of suitable well-paid jobs.

Research by the Work Foundation has shown that each Neet will cost the Exchequer pound;56,000.

Recent figures from the government showed a small drop in the percentage of young Neets. The proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds who were Neet at the end of 2012 was 9.6 per cent, down 0.2 percentage points compared to the end of 2011.

UCU president Simon Renton said: "This report lays bare the deep personal impact that sustained unemployment has on young people.

"It is truly heartbreaking to see so many people who want to contribute more to society but are left feeling their outlook is desperate and hopeless.

"The individual human tragedy is only part of the story as young people outside education or work cost the country millions of pounds every year.

"We need to give our young people a commitment of proper guidance and stable, properly rewarded jobs, or educational opportunities."

Professor Robin Simmons of the University of Huddersfield, an expert in the Neet phenomenon, said: "This report's findings are both disturbing and sobering, and clearly illustrate the negative consequences for the individual and society of being outside education and employment.

"The research illustrates the corrosive effect that unemployment can have on a young person's confidence, motivation and their view of the future."

Darren Evans

Welsh colleges facing "significant funding cuts" after government U-turn

The further education sector in Wales is bracing itself for a "significant" and unexpected funding cut, TES understands.

In January, Welsh government ministers agreed a 1 per cent funding increase for post-16 education for the 2013-14 academic year, raising the total allocation to colleges to pound;318 million. Colleges received details of their individual allocations in April and started planning their courses and enrolment numbers for September.

But with less than two months until the new term, well-placed sources have said that "significant" cuts will be made to the FE budget.

ColegauCymru, the body that represents all of Wales' FE colleges, met ministers on Monday to discuss the matter.

Commenting on the meeting, a Welsh government spokesman said: "Ministers outlined the impact that reduced funding from the Welsh government could have on the FE sector in Wales.

"To date, no decisions on future budget settlements have been taken and we will work closely with ColegauCymru to ensure that we maintain investment in learning."

A spokesman for ColegauCymru said the body was waiting for further details from the government before commenting.

Unions representing FE staff in Wales are concerned, especially because they fear the cuts could scupper attempts between themselves and colleges to draw up a common national contract, which recently reached a tentative agreement.

Dr Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said a cut would be "short-sighted"

"At a time when we are trying to grow the Welsh economy it is vital we invest in the FE sector, which drives the skills agenda," he said.

A spokesman for the University and College Union said: "Investing in education is the best way to enhance people's life chances and get the economy back on track. More cuts will do absolutely nothing for the long-term future of Wales."

Darren Evans

Too old, too male, too while, too ill-informed. What FE governance needs is a PR drive, apparently - 10 July 2013

The role of governors in the FE sector is to become the subject of a PR drive that will aim to improve the quality and diversity of governors and boost their status.

A government review into FE and sixth-form college governance, published this week, finds there is a feeling in the sector that the role often lacks status.

It also expresses concern at the size and make-up of governing bodies (recent studies have found they are "significantly larger" than equivalent bodies in other organisations), that women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities are under-represented, and that themajority of governors are aged over 45.

It says that many governors find the role to be a "steep learning curve" because of the large amounts of information they have to assimilate, and that it is hard to keep up with changing policies.

Most agree that it takes two to three years before a new governor is fully comfortable in the role. This often leads to many chairs staying on longer than they would choose

because of difficulties identifying a willing successor from within the governing body.

The report recommends that the role of governor should be more widely publicised both nationally and by colleges to ensure a wider and more diverse audience of potential governors.

High-profile case studies and documents explaining the role of governors and the benefits of being a governor should be developed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Association of Colleges (AoC) and to support recruitment, it says.

It also states that the government should review how it can improve consultation and communication with governing bodies on policy changes, and use ministerial speeches and other events to celebrate the importance and achievements of governors.

The government and the AOC's governors' council have accepted all the recommendations.

Darren Evans

Tennis, Rugby, Cyling. Bricklaying. Will the sporting success never end? World Skills proves another bounteous hunting ground for Brits - 09 July 2013

Although last weekend was dominated by UK sporting victories - think rugby, tennis, cycling - the country's most talented apprentices and young employees were also celebrating international success.

After four days of intense competition, pitting their skills against the best in the world, UK competitors brought home a haul of medals from the WorldSkills event in Leipzig, Germany.

Team UK, who are all aged 18-25, won two gold, one silver, and three bronze medals and 17 "medallions for excellence" in skills ranging from bricklaying and autobody repair to aircraft maintenance, putting them 10th in the overall medal table.

Ashley Terron, gold medallist in bricklaying, said it is "amazing" to think he is the best young bricklayer in the world.

"The last few months have been really tough fitting my training around work and family responsibilities but it has been totally worth it," he added. "I want to show the UK how apprenticeships and vocational training can enable young people to gain a real qualification and a real future."

Like Wimbledon champion Andy Murray the competitors were congratulated by none other than the prime minister, David Cameron, who said British "ambition and ingenuity" had once again taken on and beaten the best in the world.

The government prioritised apprenticeship funding in its recent spending review, and Mr Cameron said it would continue to build the "biggest and best" apprenticeship programme.

His skills minister, Matthew Hancock, said the UK wants to emulate the WorldSkills host country in its approach to apprenticeships.

"In Germany.the majority of teenagers either go to university or into an apprenticeship after they finish their exams," he said. "Through our reforms and investment in the apprenticeship programme we are working hard to make this a reality here."

But the government knows it will have to work harder; recent figures for the first nine months of the 2012-13 academic year showed a 6 per cent drop in overall apprenticeship starts compared with the previous year, and more worryingly a 13 per cent drop in starts for 16- to 18-year-olds.

It is no doubt hoping the country's success at WorldSkills will help in the efforts to buck that trend.

Darren Evans

Can anyone successfully balance quality and quantity in the apprenticeships push? - 02 July 2013

"I have worked hard to change the status of apprenticeships and raise the profile of apprenticeships," former FE minister John Hayes told TES back in 2011, as he revealed his lofty target of reaching 500,000 apprentices in England by 2015.

This had also been, he argued, a target for former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown - but one he had set for 2020. "If we maintain this momentum," Mr Hayes said, "if we can keep it going, I think we can achieve that in the lifetime of this government, on my watch."

Mr Hayes had perhaps not envisaged that his work with the FE sector would come to an end a year later, with Matthew Hancock taking over his brief. But it later emerged that he had still managed to reach this target during his time as FE minister.

But it now appears that the push to drive up apprenticeship numbers so dramatically - commonly attributed by its critics to migration from the previous Train to Gain programme - has come back to haunt the coalition. The growth was always going to be difficult to sustain, not least when the push to increase the rigour behind the apprenticeship brand was later instigated.

As the FE Focus blog reported yesterday, the number of apprenticeship starts during the first nine months of 2012-13 went down by 6 per cent. More worryingly, there was a 13 per cent drop in starts for 16- to 18-year-olds.

Today it was the turn of former Labour schools minister Lord Adonis to weigh in to the row. "Britain," he writes, "needs to reform its apprenticeship system from top to bottom if youth unemployment is to be tackled."

After admitting that the previous Labour government failed to devote enough effort to promoting apprenticeships, he continues: "This neglect continues. The number of youth apprenticeships fell last year."

So what must we do to arrest this alarming slide? Offer apprenticeships "in far larger numbers" - and, of course, "quality must improve" as well.

Sound familiar? As the current government has found out to its cost, you can either rapidly increase the number of apprenticeships by turning a blind eye to their rigour, or you can focus on ensuring their quality - but pay the price with a likely drop in the number of firms willing to put up with more onerous quality standards.

But pushing both the quality and quantity of apprenticeships simultaneously? While few would argue with Adonis' ambitions, they have - so far, at least - proved to be beyond both the recent Labour and coalition administrations. Here's hoping that someone, somewhere, has the answer.

Stephen Exley

Apprenticeships: Fall in take up reveals difficult news for ministers - 01 July 2013

New figures for the first nine months of the 2012-13 academic year show a 6 per cent drop in overall apprenticeship starts compared with the previous year, and more worryingly a 13 per cent drop in starts for 16- to 18-year-olds.

Labour's shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden has seized on the "alarming" figures to claim the government's apprenticeship drive is "stalling".

"Ministers claim to be prioritising apprenticeships but the government's own statistics clearly expose the difference between the rhetoric and the reality," he said.

In last week's comprehensive spending review chancellor George Osborne pledged that apprenticeships would continue to be supported, including an increase in investment in 2015-16.

Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers said the reasons behind the large drop in starts in the 16-18 age group are likely to be complex.

"Having said that, there is no escaping the harsh economic realities which are deterring employers from taking on more young people," he said. "This is why making a success of traineeships is so important, because they should provide a ladder to a full apprenticeship which has been missing up until now."

However, Mr Segal claimed the new statistics do contain a "significant silver lining" in that the 16-24 age group accounted for three-quarters of all apprenticeship starts during the first nine months of the year.

He said this shows employers and providers are working hard to address the challenges for young people in the jobs market.

Skills minister Matthew Hancock said his priority is to make sure apprenticeships are of the highest possible quality and root out any poor provision.

He praised them as being good for young people, employers and the economy.

"That is why we increased funding in the spending review and are consulting on a major reform of funding this summer to ensure purchasing power is in the hands of employers," he said.

Darren Evans

AOC nudges its pay offer to lecturers upwards - 26 June 2013

The Association of Colleges (AoC) has upped its pay offer to lecturers in the hope of avoiding a national strike.

After what it called "lengthy negotiations", the AoC has today tabled a final pay recommendation to the joint trade unions of a 0.7 per cent increase.

The offer is higher than its previous recommendation - a 0.5 per cent rise - but still falls far short of the 5 per cent increase demanded by the unions.

It comes as the government has proposed "at least" pound;260 million savings in further education in its comprehensive spending review.

According to the AoC the new offer would apply to all salaries, with a flat rate increase of pound;282 on the lowest point of the AoC harmonised pay scale, currently pound;14,052.

This would increase the recommended minimum hourly rate to pound;7.45 in line with the UK living wage. If accepted by the unions, the rise would come into force from August.

Emma Mason, director of employment policy and services at the AoC said the offer was made on the basis that both sides acknowledge colleges continue to face "major challenges" arising from "stringent" funding conditions.

She pointed out that its implementation would still be based on affordability at each individual college.

Government funding to colleges has been cut by 25 per cent since 2010.

Today's comprehensive spending review included a 6 per cent cut to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

It also said "at least pound;260 million" savings will be made in further education by prioritising higher value qualifications and reducing non-participation spending, although spending on apprenticeships for those aged 19 and above will be maintained.

"For colleges the priority is to maintain jobs in order to sustain and continuously improve services to students, local businesses and their communities," Ms Mason said. "Therefore our pay recommendation is necessarily restrained and recognises the need for positive engagement in local discussions regarding the need for all staff to be responsive and proactive in an ever-changing environment.

"This includes open and positive discussions on new approaches to deliver workforce efficiency and flexibility."

So far the unions have said little on the new pay offer.

A spokesperson for the University and College Union (UCU), whose members have voted to ballot for strike action in the event of a further "unsatisfactory" pay offer from the AoC, said: "UCU's further education committee meets on Friday and will consider the pay offer then."

Darren Evans

FE sector riddled with industrial action - 25 June 2013

While the FE sector prepares itself for the possibility of a national strike over pay and conditions, colleges across England and Wales are busy dealing with industrial disputes on a smaller scale.

Today, the Association of Colleges and trade unions are locked in a final round of negotiations to secure a mutually-acceptable pay deal and avert nationwide walk-outs.

But over the past few weeks, lecturers have walked out of lessons at a number of colleges and their colleagues have balloted for action at several more.

Last week, members of the University and College Union (UCU) at Kirklees College in Huddersfield took strike action in an ongoing row over job losses and pay cuts.

According to the union, almost 60 staff face pay cuts of between pound;2,000 and pound;12,000 a year or detrimental changes to their terms and conditions and six staff are at risk of losing their jobs.

Meanwhile, members of UCU and the NASUWT union at Chesterfield College in Derbyshire have taken no less than three days of strike action over plans to make 70 staff redundant.

Elsewhere, the UCU says that strike action looks inevitable. Grimsby Institute is in an ongoing dispute over job losses and pay cuts after talks broke down. The union claims that one in five teaching staff face the axe, and says it expects to announce a date for strike action soon.

The UCU could also hold a ballot for strike action at Coleg Gwent in South Wales after two of its members were suspended pending disciplinary action. The action took place on the same day possible redundancies were announced.

More than 200 members at the college, one of the largest in Wales, have now passed a vote of no confidence in the college's principal.

Barry Lovejoy, UCU's head of FE, said that government cuts were causing problems for colleges across the country. But, he added: "Colleges that try to use austerity measures to axe jobs or attack our members' rights at work or pay should expect full opposition from the union."

Emma Mason, employment policy director for the Association of Colleges, said it was "disappointed" UCU members had decided to take industrial action.

"The union's position with regard to our colleges using national austerity measures as an excuse to renegotiate local terms and conditions is to deny the reality of the impact of a significant reduction in their funding since 2010," she said.

"Colleges don't make changes for the sake of it; they are being forced to adapt to stringent financial circumstances. Since the Government's last Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), colleges have seen their funding reduce by 25 per cent - a cut of pound;250 million in this year alone.

"This means many of our members have been faced with challenging decisions around their course provision which has in some cases resulted in restructuring."

Darren Evans

Skills Funding Agency takes hit of pound;6m by overpaying independent training companies that then go bust - 18 June 2013

The Skills Funding Agency's (SFA) decision to limit direct funding to providers with contracts worth more than pound;500,000 has proved to be a controversial one. While the SFA has insisted that having to deal with fewer contracts has made its life much easier, the same cannot be said for providers. Many have had to club together, with more than 1,000 now receiving funding indirectly through other providers as subcontractors.

There have been plenty of allegations of a lack of transparency and accountability behind the project - not least from Ofsted - with the biggest fear being that the growth of complex subcontracting chains could put public money at risk.

And the latest SFA annual report, published last week, suggests that the change in policy could have an impact on its finances.

The agency has, the report reveals, been forced to take a hit of more than pound;6 million in 2012-13 - almost pound;2 million higher than its losses the previous year. Most of this, it says, is down to providers being mistakenly overpaid - and the SFA then being unable to claim the money back. "Usually," the report states, "as the organisations have gone into liquidation".

Of the 23 cases mentioned in the report, the biggest losses for the SFA came through money given to UK E-Learning Limited, which received overpayments totalling a massive pound;2.25 million. The Leicestershire-based firm was wound-up last June.

Other instances of overpayment disclosed by the SFA include Mymar Training Limited (pound;1.59 million), Apprenticeship Training Limited (pound;1.29 million) and Real Time Training Limited (pound;862,000).

SFA chief executive Kim Thorneywork has the authority to write off losses of up to pound;10,000; the rest must be signed off by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

But while the sums are substantial, the fact that providers are going to the wall despite receiving millions of pounds more than they were entitled to reveal the tight margins at play for independent training providers.

And with BIS yet to strike a deal with the Treasury over what cuts it faces in chancellor George Osborne's spending review, the sector faces an anxious few days ahead of the announcement on 26 June.

Stephen Exley

Why is it that part-time degree-level students don't seem to get on with college very well? - 13 June 2013

The FE sector in the UK has long provided higher education, with some colleges claiming to have offered degree-level courses since the 1950s.

Some 280 colleges provide undergraduate and postgraduate level courses to 170,000 students, and full-time enrolments are rising steadily. However, part-time enrolments, which account for the majority of these students, are falling rapidly, with an almost 40 per cent drop in the 2012-13 academic year alone.

Now a two-year, pound;246,000 research programme has been launched to find out what is going wrong and what can be done to improve the situation.

The current slump has been blamed on the government's introduction of loans for part-time study, but other possible answers can be found in a 2012 report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis).

It revealed that the experiences of part-time HE students in colleges were worse than those of their full-time peers, and even those of part-time university students, especially in terms of personal support and feedback.

Whether this is related to the finding that more than half of all students said they had to work harder than they had expected is unclear. What students did say is that colleges' support structures were often geared more towards the needs of younger full-time students.

The research programme, co-funded by the Association of Colleges (AoC) and Bis, will examine recruitment to part-time degree-level courses and make recommendations. Universities and science minister David Willetts said it was vital to understand what more could be done to prompt FE colleges to increase their HE offer.

Answers on a postcard please.

Darren Evans

Don't be afraid to tell the blogs editor Ed Dorrell what you think.

Is FE keeping up with tech? One government minister thinks not - 12 June 2013

A culture change is needed in England's FE sector to harness the use of technology more widely and successfully, a senior government figure has said.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) in London, Baroness Garden of Frognal, the government's skills spokeswoman in the House of Lords, questioned whether the sector understands how knowledge is becoming more available.

"We live in an age in which knowledge is being increasingly democratised," she said.

"Young people are growing up accustomed to having knowledge at their fingertips. The means to access it are becoming more diverse. Have we as educators grasped this?"

Lady Garden, standing in for skills minister Matthew Hancock whose wife was due to give birth today, called herself an "unashamed champion" of vocational learning.

She said colleges and providers are being given more room to be innovative, and should explore how technology like massive open online courses (Moocs) and virtual learning environments (VLEs) could be used to break down barriers and reach more employers.

"We have to start with the learning and understand the diverse ways learners in FE can use technology. A culture change is needed to see technology harnessed more widely and successfully," she said. "We must ensure FE culture is more open; sharing knowledge and best practice and supporting teachers to use technology to enhance the learning experience."

Stewart Segal, the new chief executive of AELP, said this message is "absolutely right"

"This has been a bit of a paper-based industry, especially in terms of ongoing assessment," he said. "Technology can play a major role in ongoing assessment and effective learning.

"The cohort we are talking about - 16- to 24-year-olds - are very familiar and comfortable with technology, and we can utilise that to great effect."

He said regulatory barriers to using technology more widely in the past are now less of an issue for many providers.

Darren Evans

Thinktank proposes the return of the polytechnic. Pigs might fly - 10 June 2013

Polytechnics should be revived by renaming further education colleges and expanding their degree-awarding powers, a thinktank has proposed.

But while the government said the plan offered "food for thought", its policies so far have been aimed at preventing a resurgence of the "binary system" of universities and polytechnics.

The Institute of Public Policy Research's Commission on the Future of Higher Education today called for the creation of 20,000 cheaper, pound;5,000-a-year degree courses, focused on vocational education and primarily provided through new polytechnics, formed from FE colleges.

"It would declare that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system," the commission said.

The resurrection of the polytechnic title aside, some of this has already been taking place since reforms to the higher education funding system increased the cost of most degrees to pound;9,000 a year, creating a market for a lower-cost alternative.

But after FE colleges began expanding their number of HE places through the core-and-margin process, winning more than half the 20,000 places set aside for colleges and universities charging less than pound;7,500 a year, ministers put the brakes on.

David Willetts, universities and science minister, has explicitly said that he is concerned about recreating the polytechnic-university divide. "If you had a much bigger core and margin, you would have a kind of binary system. You might want a binary system but I don't want to deliver one," he told the TES last year.

Similarly, there has been little progress on the expansion of degree-awarding powers. Newcastle College and New College Durham led the way by earning the right to award foundation degrees, equivalent to the first two years of a BA.

But when Bradford College tried last year to become the first college to gain full taught degree-awarding powers, it was rejected by the Quality Assurance Agency.

It is not clear, either, that there is any particular value in the name "polytechnic". The last institution to use the title was Anglia Ruskin University, which changed its name from Anglia Polytechnic University in 2005 having decided that it was off-putting to students.

That means that today's new undergraduates were only 10 when the term "polytechnic" was last used and soon there will be students who have never heard of it.

So perhaps the best name for an institution you attend as an alternative to university in order to gain a more work-oriented education is the one we already have: college.

Joseph Lee

What's in a name? Quite a lot when it comes to the new professional body for FE - 10 June 2013

Ever since it was announced that an FE guild would be established to set professional standards in the UK's post-16 sector, practitioners have eagerly awaited further details.

Last week FE Focus caught up with David Hughes, chief executive of adult learning charity Niace and chair of the FE guild steering group, to discuss the latest developments.

Firstly, Mr Hughes explained why the "guild" moniker had been dropped and the body renamed the Education and Training Foundation. "FE guild was always just a working title," he said. "Lots of organisations in the sector felt FE didn't describe them, that it was for colleges.

"Then the word guild got all sorts of reactions. Some wanted to recapture itas a modern word, but some thought it was too old-fashioned. The new name is not associated with predecessor names."

Mr Hughes said the board was still being established and would meet in an "embryonic form" for the first time later this month. It is looking for an independent chair, although he ruled himself out.

The Foundation would be made up of around 30 people, he said, and there were indications that the second year's budget would be similar to the first's, around pound;18 million. In July, a series of consultation events will be held with the sector to discuss the Foundation's priorities.

Mr Hughes said the board had agreed the general priorities, including supporting better teaching and learning, addressing issues with literacy, numeracy and functional skills and improving capacity, but the difficult part would be agreeing how to get things done and how to make sure the funding had an impact. "We are trying to come up with a particular way of doing our work," he said. "It should be delivered with the sector, not to the sector. I want to keep people involved and use their knowledge and passion."

Mr Hughes is confident the Foundation can succeed in uniting the disparate elements of the sector. "I'm optimistic that if we get this right, people will start to see themselves as more together than apart," he said.

Darren Evans

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