‘We aren’t a problem… we are the solution’

23rd October 2015 at 00:00
The new president of the AoC says that, with huge changes afoot, it’s time for the sector to shout about its true value to the country

The further education sector will have to make the case for its own survival, according to the new president of the Association of Colleges.

Ahead of the AoC’s annual conference in Birmingham next month, John Widdowson insists that as providers face serious funding cuts and the uncertainty of the area review process, the onus is on the sector to increase public awareness of its own importance.

“There is a lot of value in colleges, and a lot we do that other people either can’t or won’t do. If we were not there, that gap would be obvious immediately,” the principal of New College Durham says.

Having cut short a career in law to become a college lecturer 35 years ago, Mr Widdowson is more aware than most of the transformative power of FE. He has been principal of his current college for 17 years, a role he still relishes.

“You have got prime responsibility for the educational experience of students of all levels and abilities,” he says, “so there is always something changing or happening. But you have also got the responsibility of running a business…If you don’t appreciate how the two interact, there is a danger that you get the balance wrong.”

The role of FE, he explains, is to provide those services “the other parts of the education system don’t touch”.

“It is also where you are allowed to innovate, because you have to respond to changing needs. You are allowed to challenge boundaries between levels and even subject areas. It’s a much more open environment and one that gives you opportunity to explore and challenge things,” he adds.

Going back to basics

Mr Widdowson took on his latest role as the figurehead for the AoC earlier this year. His first priority is to ensure “a discussion about reconnecting with the basic values of why colleges are there”, he tells TES.

Making sure that a “recognisable FE system for the next five to 10 years” will emerge from the area reviews is also crucial, he adds.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has left little doubt that it expects the number of colleges to drop; the reviews are intended to result in “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers”. But Mr Widdowson believes that “one size fits all” mergers would not be the best solution in all cases. “I think different parts of the country, different localities, will respond and shape themselves in different ways,” he says.

But financial pressures are becoming more prevalent for all providers, the AoC president explains.

“So even a college like mine, which is excellent in terms of finance, is beginning to start to wonder about the impact of the cuts in the future, and certainly wondering whether we can maintain that status,” he says.

Colleges are being forced to think about cutting back on support for students. “When the funds start to get tighter, those are the sort of areas colleges have to look at. But they are vital to keeping students on board. A college is more than just a training establishment. Particularly for younger students, we are here to develop them as citizens and individuals, and that gets overlooked sometimes. Not by us, but by people outside.”

An opportunity?

Area reviews could offer an opportunity for colleges to work together for the common good, Mr Widdowson tells TES. He says that where some providers are struggling, “what I would hope is that other colleges would rally round and help”.

“Where there are problems, we need to sort them out,” he adds.

And the importance of government providing capital funding to allow students to work in facilities similar to those they will experience in the world of work should not be overstated, according to the principal. “If you want to prepare students for the modern economy, you need modern, realistic places that look like the workplace.”

But while pressures on FE may be growing, the flexibility of colleges to respond to local skills needs and opportunities to diversify their income – particularly compared with tight regulation in the schools sector – offers some cause for optimism.

And opportunities for expansion into higher education are close to the heart of Mr Widdowson, who chairs the Mixed Economy Group of 41 colleges offering HE programmes. “I definitely think there is a real gap for higher-level skills at levels 4 and 5,” he says. “And if you look at the statistics from the university sector, they are moving away from that.”

‘Believe in colleges’

A report published this week by the Policy Exchange thinktank calls for funding to be transferred from universities to bolster higher-level technical training. Mr Widdowson backs moves to allow colleges to expand in this area.

“The key is to give colleges greater ownership of things like validation [of degrees] so that they can react quickly [to local demand for skills],” he says.

And a focus on the labour market and opportunities in their own backyard will become more significant for colleges as a result of the devolution agenda. So will this lead to a diminishing role for the AoC? Not a bit of it, according to Mr Widdowson.

“I believe in what colleges do, and that they have a lot of strengths,” he says. “We need to have a coordinated approach to what we do in the period we are coming into. I have never regretted working in a college, and I am very keen to make sure other people are able to make that same decision – that they will want to work and teach in colleges and get the same reward I got. It is vital to have an organisation that can filter all the varying different opinions and then speak to government and represent what we do.”

And for Mr Widdowson himself, his new role allows him to spread the positive message about the power colleges have to turn around the lives of their students. “This is often neglected in the corridors of power,” he says. “Not many people making those decisions have been to an FE college and studied there. We have to make sure they realise that we are not part of the problem, we are part of the solution.”

CV: John Widdowson

Born 1954

Education West End County Primary in Lancashire; Audenshaw Grammar School; Durham University (law)

Career Solicitor’s articled clerk; public administration lecturer at Derby College; principal of New College Durham

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