In less than a fortnight, the Association of Colleges (AoC) annual conference begins in Birmingham. This year’s event is at a crucial time for the sector, a week before chancellor Philip Hammond’s autumn budget.
The two-day event, from 14-15 November at the International Convention Centre, comes as colleges across England are coming to terms with the impeding introduction of T levels, the implementation of the apprenticeship levy and the continuing challenges posed by GCSE resits in maths and English.
Uncertainty continues to be a major theme, with no clarity about the impact Brexit will have on the sector and little indication as to what the autumn statement might have in store for further education.
What the conference will offer, though, is the first opportunity for apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton to address college leaders. This year will also be the first time that the AoC conference has been attended by the leader of the opposition – in this case, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Here, Tes outlines the main themes likely to dominate this year’s discussions.
Following the government’s area review process, mergers are taking place or being planned across the country. The final 15 area review recommendations alone, published in August, recommended 16 mergers – two of which fell through. Of the 117 FE colleges, sixth-form colleges and college groups, 28 colleges are expected to be involved in 14 mergers.
This year’s conference will offer room for discussion not only on the merger process itself, but also on governance and the different shapes colleges can take post-merger.
With the sector in transition, leadership has become more of a focus. Earlier this year, AoC chief executive David Hughes announced the association would be creating policy groups with the aim of encouraging college leaders to increase their profile on the national stage and represent FE. A fortnight ago, leaders of colleges rated “good” or “outstanding” were invited by the government to become National Leaders of Further Education and support struggling institutions.
3. English and maths resits
GCSE resits continue to be one of the main talking points in FE. In her first interview after taking up post, AoC president Alison Birkinshaw, who will open the second day of the conference with her keynote address, said it was time to get rid of the policy. “I think it is important to emphasise that I do see it as important to work with our students to make sure they are literate and numerate,” she told Tes in September. “But the curriculum for English, in particular, is just so inappropriate.”
While it was announced only weeks ago that tolerance measures to protect funding for colleges offering English and maths GCSEs would continue “until further notice”, calls from within the sector continue for the introduction of alternative routes.
Two years ago, former skills minister Nick Boles told the conference audience in Birmingham colleges were letting private training providers “nick [their] lunch” on apprenticeships.
Six months after the apprenticeship levy came into effect, provisional figures for May to July – the first quarter after the levy was introduced – showed that starts dropped by 61 per cent, from 113,000 to 43,600. The sector has also been keen to ensure colleges can use their own levy funds, with the sector paying around £20 million into the pot annually.
Last week, Tes revealed plans for a FE teacher apprenticeship were in the pipeline, although it is unclear when this will be approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships.
5. Technical education
The introduction of T levels and the focus on technical education will be another major talking point at conference.
The first three new T levels have been announced and will be introduced in 2020, with the rest to be available by 2022. The process to determine which providers will deliver the first set of qualification in 2020 will be confirmed by the government this autumn.
The compulsory work experience element, which is to be part of all T levels, is one of the area of concerns for FE leaders.
With the autumn statement approaching, colleges are hoping for a funding boost – or at least the avoidance of further cuts. Recently, principals and chairs from 140 colleges across England wrote to the prime minister to call for extra funding to support 16- to 19-year-old students, stating students were being “short-changed” and in danger of being ill-prepared for employment.
7. New faces
Headlining this year’s conference is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who will be speaking on the first day, along with Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman. It is the first time an opposition party leader will address the conference – and only the second time a party leader has been confirmed as speaker, after former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg appeared before the conference in 2008.
Although she has been in post since May, the opening session of AoC conference will also be skills minister Anne Milton’s first real opportunity to address the college sector since being in post. The only disappointment is that education secretary Justine Greening – who attended last year’s conference – will not be returning to the ICC this year.