Review of 2008 - From expansion to recession

The year started with great optimism as colleges expanded or merged. But in the autumn, economic gloom meant further education had to prepare for the big challenges ahead. Joseph Lee reports

Joseph Lee

As the year began, colleges were confident. Record numbers were staying on in further education. The Learning and Skills Council revealed that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds had reached 753,000.

That confidence was symbolised by Newcastle College's takeover of Pounds 60 million of business belonging to Carter amp; Carter, a private training provider admired by the Government but which collapsed a few months after the death of its founder in a helicopter accident.

The admiration of private enterprise looked unwise and the virtues of colleges, their stability, ambition and capacity for innovation seemed likely to come to the fore.

But how far this would be proved right could not have been foreseen. By the year's end John Denham, the Skills Secretary, was turning to colleges for help with recession and growing unemployment.

In return, he indicated that public funding should be directed to a narrow range of formal qualifications, promising that if colleges could show that any course would help someone back into work, the Government would look at funding it.

"Now, more than ever, investment in the role of colleges is hugely important," he said. Colleges will be watching to see how this promise will be fulfilled in 2009.

Mr Denham's statement came against a background of continued struggles for the Train to Gain scheme, intended to improve adult skills. But it failed to meet targets for spending for the second year, with more than Pounds 200m unclaimed by employers who did not take up free GCSE-level training for staff.

This caused consternation in FE, where traditional adult education had lost more than 1.5 million places over three years to fund the new scheme. When it emerged that part of the underspend had been diverted to plug a gap in university student grants, the concerns grew.

Such worries fuelled the launch of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning, a group of more than 100 bodies, from the Church of England to the Friends of Puddletown library, calling for the restoration of adult education, including a right to qualifications, regardless of age.

Another worry was the revelation that the funding gap between schools and colleges, far from being closed, as promised, was bigger than anyone suspected. This year, it stood at 9 per cent instead of the expected 5 per cent. With tighter budgets, there was little hope of improvement.

Newcastle College's acquisition of Carter amp; Carter, which took its turnover to Pounds 150m, was part of a continuing trend of "super colleges", usually formed from mergers. This year also saw the completion of the merger of two colleges to form The Manchester College, which would have been Britain's largest had it not been for Newcastle's takeover. Nearly one in 10 colleges was involved in mergers at the start of the year. But ministers, concerned there was no evidence that they improved education, brought in new rules aiming to stem the tide.

The other great campus activity was construction. With the Learning and Skills Council to close in 2010, the transformation of buildings from leaky 1970s carbuncles to sleek, glass and steel constructions seems likely to be central to the legacy of its chief executive, Mark Haysom.

Colleges were at the forefront of the public sector's efforts to go green, with a target to make new buildings carbon-neutral by 2016, a year earlier than other public bodies.

All this came at a cost. The National Audit Office warned that colleges were set to owe Pounds 1bn by 2010. Despite all this investment, colleges were shrinking: the new buildings would be smaller than the old ones.

The scrapping of the LSC was part of a wave of change that followed the splitting of education between two government departments last year. After college staff sized up the alternative - Pounds 4bn of adult funding would be under the control of a new Skills Funding Agency while the Pounds 7bn for teenagers went to local authorities - the LSC had never been so popular.

In the consultation, principals said the new regime was too complex and risked local authorities favouring schools for political reasons.

But the LSC's image took a knock after a disaster in the management of the education maintenance allowance, which saw many of the 600,000 students who rely on payments of up to Pounds 30 a week having to wait months for their cash. The private contractor Liberata was sacked last month or the failure.

This year also saw the historic change of raising the age of compulsory education and training to 18. It was opposed by students and lecturers, who said teenagers should be encouraged but not forced to stay on. But principals tended to support the change. By 2013, we will start to see the effects of this attempt to create a culture change in the way we view education.

September saw a shaky start for the new vocational diplomas: just 12,000 students instead of a hoped-for 50,000 enrolled. Employers got the right to award their own qualifications, with McDonald's at the forefront - indeed, some wags nicknamed them "burger-laureates".

But in an Olympic year, attention turned to somewhat healthier activities. Colleges were put in the frame to become athletes' training camps for the 2012 games.

And Rebecca Adlington became perhaps the world's most famous apprentice as she went from her sporting excellence course to Beijing, picking up two gold medals and becoming Britain's best Olympic swimmer for a century.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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