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'FE will survive, but it needs respect to thrive'

There’s no lack of vision and ambition in further education, and the sector deserves some gratitude from ministers

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Do you see the FE glass as half-empty or half-full?

In the run-up to Wednesday’s spending review, there was an unmistakable mood of apprehension. And, after skills minister Nick Boles told the annual conference of the Association of Colleges (AoC) last week that the sector would not be “insulated” from spending cuts (it’s hard to imagine that anyone expected anything else), this was perfectly understandable.

As TES was premier media partner for the conference, I was given the privilege of chairing a debate on what the future holds for FE, which had the title: “Will colleges survive until 2025?”

Given the late funding announcements and policy U-turns that have blighted the sector since time immemorial, there was no shortage of irony in the fact that we were forced into a late reshuffle of the panel, thanks to traffic on the M6 and family illness, respectively.

But some frank and honest debate revealed plenty about the current state of mind of professionals working in FE.

One principal in the audience, Ian Pryce of Bedford College, expressed concern about the “gloomy” attitudes pervading the sector. “If all we’re doing by 2025 is surviving, then we don’t deserve to survive, I think,” he said. “I expect every college in the country to be the first choice thriving educational institution in their community in 2025.”

His college can trace its roots back to 1882. As Mr Pryce pointed out, if it managed to survive the Second World War, the prospect of having to handle another haircut to the adult skills budget shouldn’t hold too much fear.

“I’d like us to be much more upbeat and positive,” he concluded, to warm applause from the audience.

A note of caution was sounded by Gerry McDonald, principal of Tower Hamlets College. While he was in no doubt that colleges had the necessary expertise and ambition to stick around for another decade or more, he made the point that the small matter of funding was essential. “We probably are going to be here in 25 years’ time, but only if we’ve got enough cash flow to get us through until Christmas. That’s what worries me,” he said.

While it’s easy for those outside FE to criticise the sector for being downbeat, this is a gross misunderstanding of the passion and determination running through it. There’s no lack of vision and ambition, but this must always be tempered with realism.

As Ian Pretty, chief executive of the 157 Group, has put it, challenges can be viewed as problems or as opportunities. And as Mr Boles told the conference, it is time for those running colleges to “change your approach” to adapt to the current funding reality. But by insisting that “most” providers need to become “more flexible, more entrepreneurial, and quicker off the mark”, this strayed into the realm of the patronising.

Sarah Simons’ feature on prison education (available free to subscribers) makes it clear that FE is a sector that has developed unrivalled expertise in delivering to the most vulnerable individuals in the most challenging of circumstances.

Are there things the sector could do better to meet the country’s skills shortages? Undoubtedly.

But just imagine where the country would be without it, without the decades of work that have already been done.

In pointing out that the government has a clear mandate to cut public spending (unpalatable as it may be), Mr Boles was quite correct. Similarly, there’s no harm in challenging the FE sector to do better. But a little more gratitude and respect wouldn’t go amiss.

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