While the Covid crisis has been almost all-consuming, those of us in the college sector have had some welcome distraction from an interesting year of hopeful pronouncements from the government.
After a decade of neglect that saw funding cut by more than 30 per cent overall and policies that at best ignored colleges but all too often misunderstood them, we saw potential in an education secretary and prime minister who wanted to invest in colleges. I think we were correct to be hopeful and should be still, but recent experience suggests there is some way to go before colleges are respected, understood and supported to thrive.
“I can say without any hesitation that the future is further education…” were warmly welcomed words at the AoC annual conference in February, when the education secretary unapologetically pledged his passion for colleges and his conviction that colleges were central to the Covid recovery.
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This came shortly after the Skills for Jobs White Paper had promised a new and more strategic relationship between the government and colleges, building on Dame Mary Ney’s call in her 2020 review for “the sector to be valued and individual institutions to be nurtured.”
There was even the hint of a promise that the Augar review recommendation of a rebalancing of funding from HE to FE would soon be delivered in the spending review. However, the recent decision on the adult education budget threshold to be set at 90 per cent this year has undermined confidence amongst college leaders that these ambitions and policy shifts will be implemented.
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With the government finally recognising just how crucial colleges are and how they need to be given space and respect to be able to prosper, I think it’s fair to say that much of the sector was deeply frustrated. More so because early discussions with DfE officials on implementing the White Paper have been of genuinely transformational policies around the promise of “more autonomy to use funding how [colleges] see fit in order to meet the needs of learners and the skills needs of local employers…”.
Last year, after initially promising that there would be no reconciliation, the threshold was set at 68 per cent. This reflected how difficult it is to teach things like brick-laying, hair-dressing, ESoL and welding online in a lockdown. After colleges asking since last summer for a decision ahead of the current year, the DfE announced that the threshold would be 90 per cent and no exceptions would be made. Julian Gravatt has written more on this announcement and the impact on college viability in his Tes article.
It’s a classic case of what Dame Mary Ney was alluding to in her recommendation for "a shift away from a focus solely on silo programmes and towards a wider concept of support for institutions, thus preventing problems arising”. Our expectation is that a large number of colleges will lose enough money to financially destabilise them, just at the time when the government expects them to deliver on bootcamps, traineeships, apprenticeships, T levels, education recovery, the new National Skills Fund offer to 24-plus-year-olds and on higher technical qualifications. All programmes for people who need those opportunities to navigate through the Covid crisis.
If the AEB decision stands, the interim FE commissioner and her team will be exceedingly busy over the coming weeks with colleges facing redundancy programmes and deteriorating finances.
Sadly, the team will be intervening on the back of a policy that seems to offer a tightrope for college leaders to walk which keeps getting wobbled by late and ill-informed decisions. Fall off the tightrope because yours was shaken too much and you move into a punishing regime of intervention that seems to blame you for falling off. Even worse, it all too often decides not to help you get back on, but to bring in new leadership to take over. It’s a regime that we need to see the back of and a system that the White Paper seemed to recognise needed to go.
Other recent decisions also seem to fly in the face of the White Paper's ambitions. Restrictions on which qualifications can be delivered in the 24-plus level 3 entitlement, silos of funding that add to the 50-plus funding lines colleges have to individually account for. Use of Ofsted grades from two or three years ago restricting colleges’ access to new programmes. Clawback of funding over many years for colleges defrauded by unscrupulous subcontractors. The list goes on. All of these and more are based on a relationship of low trust and highly centralised control; the antithesis of the relationship that the White Paper promises to design and implement. A wobbly tightrope that inevitably some leaders will fall from.
To replace the tightrope, we need a wider path for college leaders to walk, clearly and securely set out with stronger accountability measures that matter (learner progression and outcomes, meeting local need, supporting key labour market priorities) and support to stay on the path when things get rocky. A regime that builds the capacity of leaders to walk confidently so that they can be trusted local partners offering great learning and skills, and act as the anchor institutions we all want them to be.
The sad thing is that ministers and the White Paper authors understand that potential, as do many officials and as will the new FE commissioner. Building a new trusting relationship, though, takes time and consistency of direction from government and belief and change from college leaders. I’m sad that decisions like the AEB one will not have helped because they undermine the underlying trust and belief that things have changed.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges