Bold leadership is needed in this brave new world

10th June 2016 at 00:00
FE leader
Given the rapidly changing landscape in the FE sector, now is the time for cool heads and steady hands

In just over a fortnight’s time, the biggest event in training providers’ calendars – the Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ annual conference – will be upon us once more. It seems an appropriate moment to recap what’s happened since the last one.

If you recall, skills minister Nick Boles told last year’s delegates of the “difficult choices” that would have to be made about the “less productive bits” of the FE system. At this point, no one had heard of an area-based review. How long ago that feels.

A month later, the bombshell (a document camouflaged by the benign-sounding title Reviewing Post-16 Education and Training Institutions) exploded across the sector. It also spawned what was to become arguably the most frequently used sentence in FE: “We will need to move towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers.”

And it quickly became clear that this was to be no flash in the plan. All the official rhetoric since then has insisted it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the FE sector and ensure that it is fit to survive and thrive. Boles crystallised the message in March this year. Any colleges that sat out the reviews, he said, would be on their own; doing nothing was not an option.

Concerns continued to escalate throughout last summer, as the scaremongering ahead of the Autumn Statement developed a life of its own. Months before some area reviews were supposed to begin, news of merger and federation proposals spread like wildfire.

Then came the wave of relief, after it emerged that the adult education budget wasn’t going to be cut after all. And while senior figures across the sector have insisted – quite rightly – that protecting the budget in flat cash actually represents a real-terms cut (especially when combined with rising pensions and national insurance costs), it felt as though FE had dodged a bullet.

'More steady than seismic'

Although merger consultations continue to be announced, the flow has reduced to a trickle. London is a case in point. Out of a dozen or so plans for alliances mooted in recent months, only three mergers have been confirmed so far. Reports from the first waves of area reviews suggest restructuring in those regions will be more steady than seismic.

This is no time for conservative (with a small c) thinking: colleges must be bold, dispassionate and pragmatic in analysing what needs to be done to meet the demands of today’s employers, deliver the skills needed by the next generation of learners and make sure there’s still a college for them to attend.

While chasing the money is no recipe for sustainable success, City & Guilds’ Nicole Butler makes a strong case for colleges needing to learn lessons from the world of business (article free for subscribers).

It’s a time for cool heads and steady hands. And there are few people in FE with as much experience as the new man at the helm of the Association of Colleges, David Hughes.

As the government troubleshooter tasked with sorting out the collapse of the education maintenance allowance payments system and the college capital programme, Hughes can be relied on in a crisis. Equally importantly, he’s not afraid of change, having overseen Niace’s merger with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion to form the Learning and Work Institute – keeping the body at the forefront of the policy agenda.

In his first profile interview since it was announced that he would be taking over from Martin Doel in September (article free for subscribers), Hughes insists he’s confident about FE’s future. “I think there will be colleges in 20, 30 and 40 years,” he says. “They will look a bit different, but the sector is not at risk.” It’s up to colleges to prove him right.

Stephen Exley is the Further Education editor at TES. He tweets as @stephenexley

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