As a general election looms on the horizon, further education's fate remains unclear as the mainstream political parties pledge different changes for the sector.
After being perceived as being largely indifferent towards FE in recent years, the sector has of late grown in prominence for the Conservatives. Chancellor Sajid Javid used the spending round speech in September to announce additional £400m for colleges and sixth forms, stressing that his education at Filton Technical College (now part of South Gloucestershire and Stroud College) “transformed my life”. And education secretary Gavin Williamson used his speech at the Conservative Party Conference to vow to "super-charge further education".
But will FE remain prominent in the Tories' general election campaign? Here are some areas likely to appear.
Lib Dem manifesto: GCSE resits and funding
Labour manifesto: Ofsted and adult education
Election 2019: Lib Dems to scrap Sats and league tables
As outlined above, the Tories have been at pains to emphasise the first increase in 16-18 funding since 2013. But the consensus in the sector has been that the boost is, at best, a good start and that much more cash is needed. With the Augar review having called for a £1 billion injection of capital funding, could the Tory manifesto be the time to invest a serious and prolonged period of investment in FE?
T levels and higher technical qualifications
Given the Conservatives' wafer-thin majority in the house, there has been precious little for the party to push through in the way of major education reform. It's fair to say that the "gold standard" T levels programme – arguably the most substantial policy change navigating its way through the Department for Education at the moment has been wheeled out repeatedly, as evidence of the party's commitment to driving up standards. Could an extra package of investment tied to the rollout of the new qualifications be wheeled out? It would also serve as a means of raising awareness of T levels before the first wave of the qualifications hits the classrooms in September 2020. The push on level 4 and 5 higher technical qualifications could also be a useful hook for any announcements.
National Retraining Scheme
This programme of upskilling the workforce in partnership with the CBI and TUC has been much trailed. Yet the details remain thin on the ground, other than the announcement of a few small-scale pilot programmes. Could more meat be on the way?
Institutes of technology
Institutes of technology - the first of which had been due to open this year, but have yet to actually do so - cropped up in the Conservatives' 2017 manifesto, with a commitment to establish one “in every major city in England”. There was also talk of a royal charter status and regius professorships in technical education. Nothing had been heard since – until this year's party conference, when Williamson unveiled £120 million-worth of plans for eight more of the institutes. Don't be surprised to see this ambition trotted out once more in the manifesto.
On paper, the much-vaunted apprenticeship levy has failed to make much of a positive impact, with levy funding for employers running out while the number of starts has dropped. Influential lobby groups such as the CBI have called for more flexibility to be introduced into the levy, allowing businesses to use the cash they have invested for other forms of training. Could this be announced in the manifesto in a bid to woo employers?
Don't mention the travel
There are some grand pledges from the 2017 manifesto that have been flat-out ignored ever since – not least those for “significantly discounted bus and train travel for apprentices to ensure that no young person is deterred from an apprenticeship due to travel costs”, and a “Ucas-style portal for technical education”. Given the total lack of progress so far, don't expect either of these to be revived any time soon.