January is obviously the time to look forward to the new year, but before I do, perhaps it is worth taking a moment to reflect on 2015, because I think there are key lessons that should shape our approach in 2016. In particular, we have now had the benefit of time to consider the better than expected outcome from the spending review and to understand what we learned from the process.
First, the Association of Colleges (AoC) agreed a small number of key “asks” setting out the positive case for FE and sixth-form colleges, which we repeated over and over again. Second, the AoC and our members worked together to share messages with politicians and the media. Our national and regional representations were successful because of parallel, highly effective local representations by colleges.
This year will undoubtedly bring new challenges, but also opportunities. We have a government that has set out its stall and pledged to maintain, in cash terms, the investment in post-16 education and training. This promise is in place until the end of the Parliament. This does not mean we should now stop talking about funding. There will no doubt be times when we think that more money is needed, but equally, we don’t want any change in economic forecasts to result in the spending review pledge being downgraded.
When skills minister Nick Boles addressed our annual conference in November, he said that he was looking for colleges to take a greater share of the apprenticeship market than the third of programmes it delivers at present. AoC will be prioritising this objective for 2016. We will be looking to work with government to ensure that the policy is right, including the levy to be placed on businesses from 2017, and then helping our members to negotiate the system and provide even more young people and adults with excellent training as part of their apprenticeships. We will be explaining confidently to politicians, the media and officials that colleges are the core partner in apprenticeship delivery.
We will begin to see the results of the government’s area review programme this year, with the first wave of reviews due to report soon. Our immediate priority is to ensure that the lessons of the early waves are learned by government and the FE and sixth-form college commissioners in time for the later waves. Data collection and loose definitions of “specialisation” are two of our concerns. We are still awaiting answers from Ofsted on inspections for any colleges that merge, the treatment of pensions and what financial support will be offered to colleges as part of any agreed changes. Sixth-form colleges also have a decision to make: whether to become an academy and join a chain and, in doing so, stop paying VAT.
Our original view on this issue, and the outcome of area reviews, remains firm: no change should happen to any college without the agreement of a college’s board. It is for them to make these decisions, not Whitehall or town halls.
And what of the AoC in 2016? Our membership level is strong and, as in previous years, remains at 95 per cent of the sector. The support and help that AoC president John Widdowson and I receive on a daily basis from colleges is superb. If anything, 2015 proved beyond doubt that an influential national representative body with strong regional offices is essential for the college sector to succeed.
In one respect, 2016 will be no different from any of the past seven years I have been chief executive: as ever, my whole team will be working tirelessly to promote, represent and support FE and sixth-form colleges, and they will be doing so with optimism and confidence.
Martin Doel is chief executive of the Association of Colleges