While flicking through a copy of The Complete Uxbridge English Dictionary (a spin-off book from BBC Radio 4 comedy favourite I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue) over the Christmas period, one entry almost caused me to choke on my mince pie with amusement: “Spermicide: The half of the bed you’d rather not sleep on.”
But as well as offering a cheap laugh through which to ease you from holiday season coma into serious education policy analysis, this wonderfully puerile pun serves as a timely reminder that no two halves are the same.
Reflecting on 2018 and looking ahead to 2019, it is increasingly clear that, for the further education sector, the job of winning the attention, impetus and (most crucially of all) the funding needed to drive forward the vital skills agenda is only half done.
2018: a pretty successful year?
First, though, it’s important to recognise that, in many ways, 2018 was a pretty successful year. Let’s start at the end: the New Year’s Honours List featured no fewer than 18 representatives, from WorldSkills UK’s dynamic CEO Neil Bentley to several principals and even a college caretaker. The number of recipients from English FE actually outstrips those from the schools sector, which is no mean feat.
And FE is certainly high-profile: as well as the flagship new T-levels qualifications, ministerial speeches at the Conservative party conference were packed with references to apprenticeships, the National Retraining Scheme and maths centres of excellence.
FE is taking up a huge amount of the energy and resources at the Department for Education. Last month we were even treated to a landmark speech from Damian Hinds on the importance of level 4 and 5 technical education – a less sexy corner of education policy it’s hard to pinpoint.
Colleges are putting in the hard yards
Of course, the credit shouldn’t just go to the government. It’s college and providers that are putting in the hard yards; frankly, if they weren’t doing vital work already in skilling up young people and adult learners for the labour market, the sector’s stock wouldn’t have risen so rapidly.
And the Love Our Colleges and Raise the Rate campaigns have managed to unify colleges behind a coherent and coordinated PR and lobbying push far more effectively than at any other time in recent memory.
So far, so positive. But, as always, we return to the elephant in the room, the missing piece in the jigsaw: cash.
It’s staggering that 16-18 funding hasn’t been increased for seven years. It’s indefensible that average pay for college teachers is now £7,000 a year less than for those working in schools. And it’s appalling that, by 2019-20, funding per young person in FE will be at about the same level as in 2006-07 - and only 10 per cent higher than it was in 1989-90. That isn’t a typo – that was nigh on 30 years ago.
Running a tight ship
The FE sector has become extraordinarily adept at running a tight ship in the face of ever-greater pressures, and picking up the pieces when government needs to save a few quid to bung towards more headline-grabbing policies elsewhere.
There was a perfect example before Christmas, when the DfE had to deny briefings (likely to have emanated from Number 10) that T levels could be shelved to find cash for no-deal Brexit preparations. That’s a manifesto commitment we’re talking about – arguably the single most important policy change working its way through the Department for Education at the moment. For it to be even suggested that it could be shelved shows that there are plenty of people who still need convincing of FE’s national importance.
And we’ve still not had any word on the Conservative manifesto pledges for free transport for apprentices or a Ucas-style application portal for apprenticeships. Were these commitments related to primary or secondary schools, it’s unthinkable that they would be treated in the same way. Treating schools badly is seen within the Treasury as a vote loser; treating colleges badly is seen as par for the course.
Talk is cheap
The rhetoric coming out of Whitehall now is more positive than in a long time. But talk is cheap. Running our vital further education system on a shoestring is simply not sustainable in the longer term.
The Association of Colleges, the Sixth Form College Association and others have made great strides in building constructive relationships with the DfE. But this department does not hold the purse strings when it comes to the spending review. The FE sector needs to amplify its message, and use its students and supporters to put pressure on MPs, and urge them, in turn, to exert pressure on the Treasury.
Let’s be blunt: it took lots of excellent work to get 3,000 people to Westminster for the #LoveOurColleges march and rally, and attract 67,000 signatures for the associated online petition. For the FE sector, it was a strong achievement; nationally, though, this will have not caused any consternation in the Treasury.
The job is still only half done. And the second half will be much more difficult. It will take a prolonged PR and lobbying push in the run-up to the spending review. A supportive report from the odd thinktank will not be enough to convince Treasury sceptics, neither will a smattering of college pay strikes.
The cause is by no means lost. There are plenty in government that are already convinced. But if the FE sector is to win over the remaining doubters, it will need to continue pressing its case. This isn’t the time for the sector to sit back and accept its fate.
Slumbering on will achieve nothing; the sector will need to get its hands dirty if it is to win the argument.
Stephen Exley is FE editor at Tes