Wishful Thinking

From Leader Magazine - 2020 Spring Term 1

After four years of Area Reviews, what does the further education sector now look like? Here ASCL’s Senior Adviser on College Leadership, Dr Anne Murdoch, OBE, shares her insights.

Four years of Area Reviews (AR) in Further Education (FE) have been dramatic, leaving the sector with 26% fewer colleges (39 fewer sixth forms and 48 fewer FE colleges), 57 more merged colleges, 3 federations, 3 additional FE/HE institutions, 23 more academies, and fewer colleges with inadequate financial health – 37 to 21 (https://tinyurl.com/tjw6zsz). The sector now has 174 FE colleges and 57 sixth forms, and a commensurate reduction in FE leaders.

During these four years, the government awarded £432.6 million to support AR proposals and £11.42 million in grants to merging institutions. FE sector debt reduced by 7.5%. The government’s AR end of programme report (https://tinyurl.com/usto3t7) states that it is too early to determine the long-term financial position of the FE sector, but says early analysis suggests a “broadly positive impact”. But as we all know, “broadly positive” translates to a much slimmed down FE sector – one that is slightly more financially healthy but still severely underfunded. Mergers have, in part, achieved transformation but the funding spent on the reviews could have been better invested in colleges already doing a good job. And even though the whole sector was affected by the distraction of the reviews, it continues to transform the lives of thousands of students and is bouncing back with the resilience it always displays. Additionally, as a result of lobbying by sector representative groups including ASCL, FE and skills appear to have a higher positive profile with government, employers and communities (see loveourcolleges.co.uk campaign). Indeed, even ministers were willing to declare their early successes were helped by FE and other politicians realise that they simply cannot ignore or fail to understand FE (https://tinyurl.com/raflm5z).

Sadly, the insolvency regime introduced in 2019 hit colleges hard – a situation that, for most, was the result of long-term underfunding, and, because of this, the sector experienced its first Educational Administration, introducing fear into the sector. Nevertheless, we mustn’t assume all is bad, especially as more than three-quarters of colleges have been judged as good or outstanding by Ofsted (https://tinyurl.com/r8mvyuv).

The political landscape in 2019 saw the loss of some longstanding supporters of FE, such as Skills Minister Anne Milton, resign from government and the government’s spending round saw a less than hoped for funding settlement for the FE sector. Colleges are, however, coming into greater prominence, especially with the work of the Commission on the College of the Future (https://tinyurl.com/y4yevaqr), and because of the election promises of major political parties through the work of organisations such as ASCL that is highlighting the funding injustices.

Working together

The FE sector may have fewer colleges but it is nonetheless dynamic and innovating. Colleges continue to transform learning with many good examples up and down the UK especially when it comes to working collectively.

The Blended Learning Consortium (BLC) led by the Heart of Worcestershire (HOW) College is a good example of this. Stuart Laverick, CEO and Principal of the College that created and leads the Blended Learning Consortium, said, “The BLC continues to grow from strength to strength with over 130 College members. The high-quality interactive adaptable learning objects that BLC develops are supporting cost effective learning across UK colleges. The buying power of the BLC means consortium members can access key software packages at very competitive prices. This is the FE sector at its best collaborating to drive innovation and to achieve real value for money.”

Doncaster and North Lindsey Colleges, which came together as DN Colleges Group in 2017, now has more of its provision at higher education level. The college is working in partnership with employers to improve skills, increase productivity, maximise the use of technology and use state-of-the-art industrial equipment in its practical workshops. CEO of DN Colleges Group, Anne Tyrrell, said, “We set out to grow our higher education and apprenticeships and combined, they now exceed 16–18 provision in numbers. This means that as well as growing and diversifying our income, our students now have more local pathways and opportunities to aspire to and we are contributing to regional priorities.”

These two examples are not isolated. Grimsby Institute of FHE recently won a gold award for learning technologies; HCUC, a merger of Harrow and Uxbridge Colleges, transformed its systems and processes by using the best of both colleges’ practices to significantly improve student experience, and the Institutes of Technology are developing fantastic provision. Colleges are developing high-quality provision for their communities, supporting students in businesses, transforming areas hit by business closure and collaborating to share good practice.

However, colleges need investment to continue their transformation; they are led by inspirational leaders who are in no doubt about the kinds of achievements their institutions can bring, if properly funded, for young people and adults who want FE and local pathways to HE to prepare them for work and life.

Funding must improve

The recent announcement of £400 million investment in FE is welcome, as is the capital investment in T levels. But, this is nowhere near enough; adult education needs a much better funding deal if skills gaps are to be bridged and productivity increased, and FE must be funded sufficiently if it is to improve the country’s future prosperity. An education marketplace with apprenticeship policy and T levels at Level 3 alone won’t cut it for most of the population.

FE is emerging from one of the most difficult periods it has ever experienced, holding its own in the educational landscape, clarifying its vision and looking fitter for the future – a position achieved through the vision and hard work of its leaders.

Dr Anne Murdoch OBE
ASCL Senior Adviser on College Leadership

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