Why were FE colleges an afterthought again this week?

Staff and students in schools benefited from a well-coordinated early announcement of the government’s Covid reopening plans - college staff were not so lucky, writes Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Colleges once again had to wait to hear what the government had planned for them

Reading about the government’s plans on a Sunday evening has become a regular occurrence, even for those in the education sector who are well connected to the corridors of power in Westminster. 

Last weekend was no different. By just after 11pm on Sunday night, school staff, pupils, and their parents and carers were able to turn to any number of national publications to find out what prime minister Boris Johnson would announce in Parliament the next day. 

College staff and their hundreds of thousands of students, however, were not so lucky. Not a word in any of the shared information about how or when colleges would open for more students – and who would be prioritised in this. 

That is, of course, understandable to an extent. It is certainly not new to anyone in further education that there is a perception that the national media, by and large, cares more about schools than it does about what happens in FE. It is also much catchier to simply “schools”, rather than “schools and colleges”. 

Background: Back-to-school - PM to say all can return from 8 March

Williamson: Colleges 'at the heart of Covid recovery'

Back to college: All students to return from 8 March

FE guidance: Back to college - Everything you need to know

And so, while schools started preparing and setting out how they might go about reopening on 8 March, and how the government’s plans for tests might work, those in FE institutions sat patiently, waiting for Mr Johnson to stand up in Parliament and share his plans. There wasn’t even, as far as I can tell, a great deal of outrage at being left out of early announcements. 

It is, quite simply, no longer surprising for anyone in the college and training sector that they are an afterthought, if not forgotten about altogether. But it is, nonetheless, relevant. It is, let’s not forget, only weeks since education secretary Gavin Williamson told the sector that “without any hesitation, the future is FE”. 

Colleges should be “fully aware that they will be playing a much bigger and significant role in the skills revolution that government will deliver for the country”, he told the Association of Colleges conference. 

And only weeks later, even when they were finally mentioned by Boris Johnson in his announcement of the coronavirus roadmap in Parliament, FE institutions were relegated once again to the almost notorious “and colleges” in the middle of what felt very much like a school announcement. In the lengthy questioning by MPs, they were not mentioned at all. 

It is worth pointing out that, from speaking to those in the FE sector, it seems most are reasonably happy with what was announced yesterday – not least because it was swiftly followed, for once, by detailed guidance on what the government expected institutions to do and comply with a fortnight from now.

There is also, it seems at first glance, a bit of flexibility in areas such as the continued use of remote learning and the prioritisation of different groups of learners. 

But it shows the long road ahead for a sector that so badly needs investment and attention if it is to play the role Gavin Williamson so badly wants it to play – and that it is undoubtedly capable of. When it really matters, when it is about headline grabbing announcements, it is “and colleges” at best. 

Staff and students in colleges deserve better than that. If they are to help rebuild the economy post-Covid, they shouldn't be an afterthought – they should be at the core of every announcement. 

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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