With Brexit and the chancellor’s welcome but not adequate funding boost, it would be easy to forget about all the policy and implementation issues that the Department for Education and colleges are grappling with. Here’s my list of just some of them:
Colleges' areas of concern
- A focus on helping more young people to achieve a level 3 qualification. The funding announcement last week started to redress a decade of neglect of 16- to 18-year-olds in the education system, and the secretary of state has made it clear, not unreasonably, that he wants to see impact for this and future increased investment.
I’m hopeful that this will mean more flexibility and better funding to support 16-year-olds who have not achieved a full level 2, restoration of the full funding for 18-year-olds who need a third year, and implementation of the Augar proposal for a fully-funded level 3 entitlement for adults. The latter is critical, in my view, because whatever the improvements in level 3 achievement by age 19, there will still be many who will want to and need to return to learning later to reach that level.
- More and more focus on Stem and qualifications "of economic value". This has the potential for all sorts of perverse outcomes, so we will be working closely with officials to help all that we can. There is great merit in ensuring that courses which are expensive to run (construction, engineering, catering, for instance) are properly funded, and at the moment they are not. Getting the revenue right alongside the capital is not easy because these are high-cost programmes with enormous challenges, not least in attracting staff in areas of the labour market that are experiencing skills shortages and in funding the work needed to stimulate demand from students and employers.
- Talking of skills shortages, I am expecting more pressure from employers on colleges and universities for "people with the skills we need". The Brexit mess has already had an impact, one which is surely going to grow, with fewer semi-skilled, skilled and professional migrant workers available in the labour market. Combine that with the halving of investment in adult learning over the last decade by successive governments, the stark picture painted by the Learning and Work Institute survey that we are at an all-time low in participation in learning (35 per cent of adults say that have participated in learning in the last 3 years) and the term "skills crisis" looks set to return.
- A renewed focus on the student experience in colleges. At the Association of Colleges, we’ll be working hard to ensure that this one does feature in government plans. Building on the interest in resilience, grit and character, we will be working with colleges on how to enhance the wider student experience, particularly for young people on their journey to becoming empowered and engaged citizens. Sport, physical activity, arts, culture, politics, volunteering and social action are all key components of the personal, social development that colleges excel at. Add in the work we are doing on mental wellbeing and on the successor to Erasmus+ (which offers international experiences for colleges students) and there’s an exciting agenda to work on.
More news: £400m boost for colleges: 16-18 funding finally raised
- Adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills need more attention, but I am pessimistic about whether we will see it. The scale of the challenge, with 7 million adults with poor literacy alone, is staggering, and yet its persistence seems to be accepted or ignored. I live in hope that this will be the year in which a new and concerted effort is made to address it. I am also hoping that the tricky issue of how to enhance the literacy and numeracy skills of every 16- to 18-year-old can progress beyond the crude, punitive and simplistic current GCSE resit policy.
- Improving pathways from level 3 to levels 4 and 5. The DfE’s consultation on how to boost take-up of level 4 and 5 learning and the proper focus that this had in the Augar report should see this one developing over the next year. Colleges are vital places to invest in pathways from the new T levels on to work-focused, technical qualifications that help meet skills shortages. The sooner the government starts to invest, the better.
- A new apprenticeship strategy and fair funding settlement are vital. I am pleased that the ill-conceived 3 million apprenticeship starts target has now been consigned to history, but we now need a more nuanced and balanced strategy. That strategy needs to provide greater clarity on the purpose and priorities of the apprenticeships programme and it needs to satisfy employers paying the levy that they are able to get what they want from it, but not at the expense of smaller employers.
- The question of how to fund and support SEND learners when they turn 16 and as they become adults needs far more focus, as well as proper funding. The SEND debate is all too often dominated by the tough issues schools, families and local authorities are presented with in the face of growing demand and increasing costs. We work hard and will need to continue to do so to ensure that post-16 needs and funding are addressed as well.
- If I’m being super-optimistic, this might even be the year that the DfE moves on from a policy of competition between providers and instead focuses on how to ensure the breadth and quality of provision every community deserves. This will require a more collaborative environment, with institutions specialising more and working across areas/regions to ensure the most effective as well as efficient use of resources. Colleges want to be viewed as community-based anchor institutions and have the right sort of accountability mechanisms as well as investment in place to be able to achieve that.
There are nine areas that need a lot of work – and I haven’t even mentioned T levels, the review of applied general qualifications, the industrial strategy, devolution, college leadership and governance, the new Ofsted inspection framework, skills competitions, IAG and careers advice, next year’s spending review and a possible general election.
Another busy year at AoC, for colleges and for our work with government. I’m already looking forward to my summer holiday next year.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges