In July, on the steps of Number 10, Theresa May outlined a desire to make Britain a country that works for everyone. She said that she wanted to tackle social injustice and help everyone to go as far as their talents would take them.
If the prime minister needs further proof of how further education can deliver that, she should take a look at the case studies in a new project from the University and College Union (UCU), which demonstrates the transformative power of education for people and their communities.
As the UK works out what Brexit really means and how to thrive outside the European Union, FE must demonstrate the crucial role it can play. The sector must argue for greater investment to create the necessary opportunities for people and the economy post-Brexit.
A million adult learners have been lost from the sector since 2009. Outside the EU – and, as looks likely, the common market, too – the UK will need to grow its own skilled workforce like never before. This will only be possible with a very deliberate and strategic investment in FE.
The ability of the UK to attract inward investment outside the common market will rely more than ever before on the skills of its workforce. Significant investment is needed now. We cannot turn on the tap in three years’ time and expect to see the skilled workforce we need just flowing out.
Funding cuts and area reviews have sent a damaging message that this is a sector in decline. Teachers in colleges are paid 6.2 per cent less on average than their colleagues working in schools. Workloads have skyrocketed and opportunities for professional development have diminished.
To find our feet outside the EU, we must position FE and its transformative potential at the heart of this country's success
We have also seen an exodus of teaching talent from the sector. There are now 15,000 fewer people teaching in FE colleges than there were six years ago.
If the government wants to achieve its aim to help people get on in life, it needs to take a strategic approach to engaging with staff, reverse the decline in teacher numbers and make the sector an attractive place for people to work. That means investing properly to aid the recruitment and retention of teachers and support staff.
To replace the 15,000 teaching staff we’ve lost and open up learning opportunities for at least 250,000 more students, UCU estimates that the government needs to invest about £700 million.
Investing in learning makes financial as well as practical sense. We know that for every £1 of public investment in FE, the government gets £20 back in economic returns. But there’s work to be done to convince the government that investment in more than just apprenticeships is worthwhile.
That’s why the sector needs to work together to make the case for significant investment, and for a workforce strategy that helps to ensure FE teachers are valued and want to remain in their jobs.
We’ve seen what the sector can do when it speaks with one voice. Last year’s #loveFE campaign, supported by sector organisations and trade unions across FE, helped to stave off anticipated cuts to 16-19 and adult learning funding in the November Budget.
We now need to harness that same energy to make the case for investment to support the sector as it meets growing skills demands. No matter what Brexit really means, if the UK is to find its feet outside the EU, we must position FE and its transformative potential at the heart of this country’s continued success.
Andrew Harden is head of FE at the University and College Union