What will 2021 bring for FE colleges?

In his yearly round-up, AoC leader David Hughes reflects on how colleges have risen to the challenge in the Covid crisis

David Hughes

The future of FE colleges: What will 2021 hold after a year of challenges amid the coronavirus crisis?

Where do you begin with a review of this year? How on earth can you get the tone right when lives were lost and every single one of us had such disruption to our lives and to work?

It gets no easier in looking ahead because the impact of the virus looks set to rumble on for years to come, given the recession that followed from it. But that’s exactly what I’ve been asked to do and want to try, so bear with me.


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In searching for some positives from such a difficult year, the one thing that dominates for me is how colleges have shown why they are vital. Their unstinting focus on the needs of students has impressed alongside their connections to and support for their communities.

Coronavirus: Colleges have shown that they are vital

For the former, we saw a switch almost overnight, in the first lockdown, to online learning and detailed planning for a safe return to face-to-face learning in September. For the latter, colleges shared and manufactured personal protective equipment, provided food and ran food banks, trained frontline workers and gave over residential accommodation for key workers.

The challenges that colleges faced were not unique to them – every organisation, every education provider, government and essential services has coped amazingly well – but what was particularly impressive was the pragmatic, quiet and professional way they dealt with everything that was thrown at them.

Severe loss of income, a collapse in apprenticeship starts, around 100,000 young students without digital devices, extra costs to keep students and staff safe, seemingly constant changes to the guidance from government and mental health difficulties mounting headed the list of challenges faced.

As we reach the year end, I can almost hear the great sigh of relief that the Christmas and new year break arrived at the same time as a vaccine has begun rolling out. The hope of the latter has probably allowed us all to rest a little more this holiday, with a degree of optimism that has been sadly lacking for most of this year.

My memory of the pandemic will be dominated by the challenge I found most difficult – how to offer some hope, a vision, a future when there seemed at times to be no end in sight. Back in April, I wrote about how hard it was being a leader because of the impossibility to see the end and how all-consuming the pandemic was in terms of work and home life. The pace of work and the overwhelmingly grim news about the impact of the virus hasn’t stopped all year, making optimism feel delusional.

With the vaccine, though, we can see a way out – not to the old ways, not back to normal and not without the scars of the virus on our society, our families and the economy, but to a new place which we still have to determine. This is the time when leadership really counts and when a positive vision of what can be needs to be promoted, shared and worked for. For all of us in this country, that vision is even harder to imagine because of the unknown impact of Brexit, but perhaps it is even more vital that we spend time agreeing it.

The future of FE looks bright

For the college sector, the future looks promising. After a decade of neglect, colleges are now higher profile and viewed less as problems that need reforming, and more as anchor institutions deserving investment. Post-16 education is finally being viewed more holistically, with the 20 year-long obsession with universities and the more recent love affair with apprenticeships tempered a little and replaced by a fuller understanding of the whole system of education, training and skills that is needed in a successful economy and fair society.

There’s lots more to do, of course, to design and construct a new post-16 system worthy of the name, but the FE White Paper, promised for so long, really might arrive early in the new year, followed by a new higher education strategy. Both should bring welcome coherence to post-16 policy and fairness to every adult wanting to learn, but they might also bring unwelcome fancies and foibles rather than the funding and investment required. Time will tell.

The rollout of the vaccine will start, perhaps by the summer term, to make face-to-face teaching and learning more straightforward and life more enriched. Human contact, social gatherings and support will all return with gusto as we all appreciate what we had momentarily lost. I hadn’t realised, for instance, quite how much I enjoyed simply seeing people, passing the time of day and random conversations with strangers let alone the closer, deeper and more meaningful relationships with family and friends. None of us will forget quickly our need for the social side of work and life.

Exams in 2021 start early, with over 130,000 students sitting technical exams in January and hundreds of thousands taking practical assessments through the early months. Sadly, the media and political focus, though, will be much greater on the hundreds of thousands taking GCSEs and A levels in the summer.

Last summer many saw the longstanding inequalities in education outcomes for the first time; inequalities that were not the fault of the pandemic but simply exposed by them. That means much more scrutiny of the 2021 summer exam results after a year in which tens of thousands of students will have suffered disruptions to their learning directly and indirectly as a result of the pandemic. That differential "lost learning" will be impossible for the system to account for or overcome. I’m expecting another media frenzy when the results emerge in August. Longer-term, we really do need a more rounded approach to assessment that balances the relative strengths and weaknesses of different types of assessment into a fairer and more resilient whole.

Tackling racism in FE 

Alongside all of that are two other big issues that I imagine colleges and the Association of Colleges will be dealing with. The first is the taking forward of actions to back up our commitment to tackling racism in FE. We’ll continue our journey at AoC to equality, diversity and inclusion in everything we do as an employer and in our work. With our partners at the National Centre for Diversity, we’re reviewing what we do, how we do it and what the outcomes are. That will help with the leadership role, with colleges all trying to do the same – for their students and with their staff. It will help us to challenge and work in partnership with others – the Department for Education, Ofqual, Ofsted and many others. I’m excited at our fledgling plans for a big event in the autumn where we can share more and seek sign-up from others.

The other big issue is the economy and its impact on the labour market and unemployment.  With unemployment rising fast, more young people will turn to their local college for a positive safe haven to develop the skills they need to secure good work. Employers will also be turning to colleges for help with reforming their businesses, using new techniques and technology, seeking people with the skills they need for success.

Colleges will need the flexible investment from government to be able to meet these new and emerging needs, along with the support to lead local solutions, in collaboration with other colleges, schools, universities and, of course, with employers themselves. This could be an exciting time of innovations, creativity and positive outcomes, but, equally, it could be a time of frustrations, barriers and insufficient resources. The FE White Paper might give us a clue as to what to expect.

That’s enough speculating from me. All I can really promise is that colleges will step up to the challenges, show their resourcefulness, strive to meet student, community and employer needs, and get on with their core purpose of educating, training and supporting people who want to get on in life and in work. Oh, and AoC will be alongside them, trying to secure the investment and policies that will make that happen. Happy new year.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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