As the dust settled following the government’s comprehensive spending review (CSR) announcement yesterday, I along with many other college principals breathed a sigh of relief. The promised decimation of adult skills did not materialise, nor did the predicted cuts to 16-19 funding. It would seem, then, that the sector has been listened to; that the combined lobbying of fellow principals, governors and the Association of Colleges (AoC) had the impact that we all wanted.
On the whole, the outcome of the CSR is far better all-round than anyone could have predicted. As with all things, however, the devil will be in the detail – and there are some stark messages for colleges that we need to pay attention to.
Whilst the adult skills budget has been protected in cash terms, funding for provision that is not directly linked to employment in the form of apprenticeships is likely, in future, to come through an extended loans system. To date, we do not have a great track record in meeting the 24-plus advanced learning loan allocation, so there are some challenges for us in attracting the same volume of 19-plus students through this route unless we fundamentally change how we communicate and promote its benefits. However, the extension of the loan system provides us with the opportunity to reach adults who may not have considered further education before – if the product and the delivery is right.
The government’s commitment to double spending on apprenticeships is not unexpected. Delivering an education system with two clear routes, of equal value, is a key priority for this government and one that colleges must play a significant part in delivering. At the recent AoC annual conference, skills minister Nick Boles implored the sector to stop letting others “eat your lunch” – and he’s right. The level of apprenticeship delivery within colleges overall is woeful.
Technical education should be our heartland. After all, it is where many colleges started. So why is it that colleges don’t deliver more than one-third of apprenticeships at the present time? I am sure there are valid reasons; some related to structures, some related to culture and some related to ways of working. We need to address whatever is stopping us from delivering more apprenticeships with a sense of urgency. The government has set out its vision for colleges and if our seat at the table is to remain, then we need to take up the mantle. We should be at the forefront of apprenticeship-delivery, and we can be – if we think and work a little differently.
There was much to celebrate within the CSR; not least what can happen when colleges pull together. We should now dedicate the same amount of energy, commitment and passion to working together to produce a collective plan of how we will meet the priorities the government wants us to deliver. Because, if we don’t, the trust that has been placed in us will be short-lived.