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A new year's resolution? Bring your friends closer

In uncertain times for further education, it is important to stay close and share experiences, writes Julia Belgutay

The further education sector needs to come closer together and share best practice, writes Julia Belgutay

In uncertain times for further education, it is important to stay close and share experiences, writes Julia Belgutay

I am not a fan of New Year’s Eve. While Christmas, to me, is full of lights and excitement and optimism, I tend to view New Year’s Eve as much more of a day for reflection with a tinge of sadness for the opportunities missed in the past year.

It should, of course, be the opposite. I should look at 2019 as a continuation of everything that was good in 2018 and a chance to start a new chapter in areas where improvements are necessary. It should also be a moment of looking forward to what the new year will bring.

When it comes to FE, the sector is likely to hold its breath until it is clear whether the Spending Review will deliver additional funding for the sector. Much will depend on that. Most importantly, it will determine what can be achieved in pay negotiations across the country, and, therefore, how much strike action and industrial dispute we are likely to see. And, alongside that, what those colleges already struggling to make ends meet need to be prepared for. For now, though, the sector can only wait.

Another area of significant uncertainty is one that the whole of the UK is facing – Brexit. As the new year gets underway, very little is known about what that will look like or mean in practice. Or, if you ask some, whether it will even happen.

Uncertainty and risk in FE

There are also uncertainties around apprenticeships and how the number of starts – and colleges involvement with them – will develop over the coming months. We have, over the past few months, seen colleges hit financial trouble because they relied too heavily on apprenticeship income streams that did not materialise.

We don’t yet know what 2019 will bring for FE, but we do know that there will be significant uncertainty and risk involved. There will be broken promises, and hopes dashed, and stories of failure and disappointment.

So maybe, as their first new year's resolution, colleges should look towards what they do know – building on their own strength as providers of quality skills training and learning providers, and the reputation many have developed over decades locally, regionally and, in some cases, nationally. The sector has always been resilient, and will need to continue in that vein if it is to avoid losing out to other parts of the education sector in an ever-changing environment.

Peer support among colleges

But there is one other thing the FE sector needs to do better, in my view. At the most recent Association of Colleges conference, one of the things that struck me was the number of college leaders who told me that, among other things, what they valued most about conferences such as this was the opportunity to meet with their peers, discuss the challenges faced by the sector, and share good practice. It is something that, in the day-to-day running of institutions, there is often too little time for, but which is still of crucial importance in times of this much uncertainty and change.

And this isn’t just limited to one system. Across the UK, colleges have areas of expertise others can learn a huge amount from, if only they lifted their heads and entered a dialogue. Apprenticeship policy is one such area which varies across the UK, and where colleges working together to support large employers and learning from each other can benefit significantly.

Lessons can also be learned in industrial relations. Colleges elsewhere in the UK went through mergers a number of years before area reviews caused similar moves in England, so why not speak to peers across the borders of the isles to see what worked for them and what pitfalls could have been avoided in hindsight?

Bargaining systems also differ across the UK, and each nation has taken a different path in pay and conditions negotiations. Why not try and learn the lessons of that as all colleges battle tight budgets and increasing salary costs, and college staff do their best to fight for fair pay and conditions? We have seen great examples of this – college leaders seeking advice and sector organisations bringing representatives from all four nations together.

But there needs to be more of it. In uncertain times, the sector needs to come much closer together, and rely on its friends near and far. Because, quite frankly, the famous quote that "in prosperity, our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends" certainly holds true for FE. 

Julia Belgutay is Tes' deputy FE editor

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