After years of what seems like constant policy upheaval, the FE sector is more than used to change. But even by recent standards, the importance of the coming academic year is difficult to overplay.
In the past few months, Britain has been rocked by the result of the referendum on European Union membership. Meanwhile, the Sainsbury review – outlining the most significant transformation of post-16 education since the introduction of A levels – looks set to have wide-ranging and radical implications for the future of the sector. And the April 2017 launch of the apprenticeship levy looms ever nearer.
As area reviews continue to sweep across the country, and the Department for Education gets to grips with having complete oversight of everything FE, here’s a rundown of what to expect over the coming months.
The UK is still reeling from its decision to leave the EU. Although the referendum result is unlikely to have any dramatic impact on education over the next 12 months – mainly because of the lengthy legal process involved in Brexit, which will likely take until at least 2019 – in the longer term, the UK will have to act quickly to train more skilled workers, instead of relying on European migrants.
Another factor to consider, given Downing Street’s focus on departure from the EU, is how high education will be in ministers’ list of priorities. The government may fall into a trap of “relegating” education, says Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges.
An announcement on the next steps in the Brexit process is likely to be made either once MPs return to Parliament or at the Conservative Party conference in October.
Since the publication of the long-awaited report from the Sainsbury review of technical education and the resulting Post-16 Skills Plan in July, the recommendations have divided opinion. Some in the sector support the rationale behind the plan to create 15 new technical educational pathways, while others believe it fails to reflect the complexity of the UK’s economy. Hospitality, for example, is not one of the pathways, despite being a major source of employment.
As work on putting the grand plans into practice gets under way, the potential drying up of skilled labour from overseas will only make implementing them more urgent.
Brexit will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on public spending. When the Autumn Statement is published – expected to be in November, as it was last year, or possibly December – any changes the government makes to its spending plans will, most likely, have consequences for FE. Here’s hoping that, as in 2015, the settlement will be less severe than feared.
The apprenticeship levy is going ahead as planned, the government has insisted. While it will be focused on large employers, uncertainty remains around the number of apprenticeship places to be offered by non-levy-payers. The biggest dates for the diary are 6 April, when the levy starts to be paid, and 1 May, when the funding system takes effect.
The appointment of Robert Halfon as apprenticeships and skills minister has been received warmly by many in the FE sector. He was the first MP to employ an apprentice in the House of Commons, and has a long-standing interest in further education.
A few days after being officially confirmed in the role, in his first interview as minister, Mr Halfon told TES that he would “bang the drum for apprentices”.
“I am committed to enabling young people and adults to get the skills they need to succeed in a job,” he said, acknowledging the long-term requirement to create the “workforce that businesses need to thrive” in the light of Brexit.
He also spoke of his desire to see the introduction of a living wage for apprentices, and to make it easier for unemployed people – particularly single parents and people with disabilities – to become apprentices without being financially penalised by losing benefits. It will be interesting to see how these ambitions develop in the coming months.
Like an unwanted child after a relationship breakdown, FE has spent the past few years dividing its time between two government departments. But no more: it is now entirely under the control of the Department for Education, and has bid farewell to the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis, since replaced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy).
Mr Gravatt believes that this transition may pose problems but offers significant opportunities. “We’ve suffered in the past seven years from some arbitrary barriers,” he says. After the division of the Learning and Skills Council in 2010, two different funding streams were formed – one for education and training at 16-18 (under the Education Funding Agency), and another for 19-plus provision (under the Skills Funding Agency).
There is now an opportunity for restructuring and consolidation, which could affect everything from teacher training to data collection. “There are all sorts of detailed issues where you could get some synergies where you have the DfE in place,” Mr Gravatt adds.
For the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, a particular concern has been that, until now, employment and skills have been split between the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Bis.
In theory, greater collaboration between government departments could give those requiring basic skills provision, such as the unemployed, quicker access to programmes to help them into work.
Frank Field, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, will launch an inquiry into young people’s career and employment prospects in the autumn.
Over the next few years, emerging regional commissioning bodies will begin to yield greater power over adult skills funding, as a result of the devolution process. There is uncertainty, however, regarding to what extent this will mean moving from a grant-allocated system for colleges to a model of wholesale commissioning.
Sheffield, which is number two behind Manchester in the devolution race, has talked about using the commissioning model, which would mean colleges would no longer be automatically guaranteed funding, and would have to compete for it with other providers. As to whether other areas will follow, only time will tell.
Significant government restructuring this summer has put a pause on the publication of a host of long-overdue area review reports. More reviews are set to get under way this month. But the extent of the changes that will result from them is open to debate. Might there even be a possibility that the new group of ministers could see fit to abandon the process altogether? With Sir David Collins retiring this autumn, it also remains to be seen how the arrival of a new FE commissioner will affect the process.
Sixth-form college conversion to academy status
Despite plenty of interest from sixth-form colleges about converting to academy status, the ins and outs of conversion are still being fine-tuned at the DfE. The process is lengthy and complex: a college must first have an area review recommendation, and then go through up to eight stages of conversion (three stages of actual conversion, and up to five further stages to transfer responsibilities to the academy trust). According to colleges at the front of the queue, the first conversions are on course to take place in early 2017.
With the explosion in GCSE resits last year, colleges are facing the huge challenge of delivering English and maths programmes on an unprecedented scale. And that’s not all they will have to contend with, as new reformed – and more difficult – GCSEs in English and maths are on the way. With them will come a new grading system, running from 9-1 rather than A*-G.
There are just two final resit opportunities available for students under the current GCSEs: in November and next summer. If students have still not achieved a pass at this point, they will have to prepare for the reformed GCSEs instead.
Ultimately, experts predict the change will result in more students failing to get a “good” pass under the new grading system – and colleges having even larger resit cohorts to cope with.