Today the Association of Colleges is hosting a grand gathering of principals, deputies, chairs and governors. The AoC’s Area Reviews and College Structures conference is designed to help colleges to take the long view to ensure “financial health and stability” for the next three, five or even seven-plus years.
This is just as well given the timescale emerging for these reviews, aimed at injecting greater efficiency into the sector. One principal told FErret: “[The government] may expect the area reviews to be sewn up by March 2017 but that’s just the start of it. I’m expected to brief my LEP [local enterprise partnership] on this and they just don’t get it. ‘Which bozo in government thought you could do a review of colleges and ignore the wider world of education and training?’ they ask me. I tell them: ‘Speak to [skills minister] Nick Boles – he’ll see sense’.”
However, since Mr Boles is unlikely to be swayed by this argument, colleges are on their own, which is just what the government intended. In a small, informal meeting recently, it transpired that the chair and vice-chair of a very large and strategically positioned southern LEP had not even heard about the area reviews. A similarly placed West Country LEP source said: “If these were really important, Bis [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] would have told us.” The LEP for Leeds seems more clued-up but may not be much help to colleges affected by at least three area reviews over nearly two years.
The AoC’s assistant chief executive Julian Gravatt, who has the neat ability to dispassionately blame the government without actually pointing a finger, said: “There must be caution about making short-term savings from mergers inspired by area reviews or devolution, and the government should instead look at longer-term funding agreements.”
And that will undoubtedly be the tone of today’s conference. Let’s hope, therefore, that the AoC remembered to invite a few of the less enlightened LEP leaders along with the college principals, deputies, chairs and governors.
The state we’re in
So, what about the state of FE generally? The latest report based on an annual survey carried out by consultants at the Policy Consortium suggests that a range of unintended consequences will result from reforms imposed on colleges before and since the general election.
It’s bad enough, say FE bosses and staff, that the cuts (of 3.9 per cent in July on top of an earlier 24 per cent, with more expected in the chancellor’s November spending review) have undermined providers’ ability to plan and to meet students’ needs. But just as damaging are policies such as the end of mandatory English for speakers of other languages funding, cuts to adult basic skills provision and reduced support for lower-level qualifications.
But what do the people who advise ministers think of it all? Former business secretary Vince Cable once told TES of a Treasury desire to kill off FE (which he successfully resisted). Does this wish perhaps persist and, if so, does it extend along the corridors of Bis?
Some indication came from an exchange at a recent meeting overheard by FErret. A deputy principal, in discussions with officials after a conference, said the survey results suggested not just ill-considered government policy but incompetence. To this the official replied: “I might agree with you if I thought ministers didn’t know what they were doing.” It remains unclear where the official’s sympathies lie.
Was the remark a Francis Urquhart-style “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”? Or was it more like Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey making a point he hoped would get back to his minister? We may never know who’s to blame – until and unless things really fall apart.