From education to employment

AoC puts FE and skills system under the microscope with publication of in-depth policy papers

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The Association of Colleges (AoC) has set out in detail the reforms any future government needs to make in all areas of the FE and skills system with the publication of 14 policy papers.

The papers follow on from the publication of AoC’s 100% Opportunity report published last week, and the Opportunity England report in summer 2023, and have been developed with AoC member colleges.

Each paper provides an in-depth overview of current policies, the challenges posed by them, and then a set of specific recommendations to better meet the needs of 100% of young people and adults.

The papers cover: adult education, apprenticeships, assessment, curriculum, devolution, digital, higher technical education, inspection and accountability, internationalisation, local skills improvement plans (LSIPs), mental health, SEND, student experience and workforce.

David Hughes, chief executive, Association of Colleges, said:

“The next government has a challenge to improve the post-16 system as our 100% Opportunity report made crystal clear. There are system changes needed, but also detailed policy changes across all 14 of the areas we have chosen to set out here that we want to see addressed.

“These policy papers provide expert, detailed analysis, putting each area of FE and skills policy under the microscope to give policy makers and influencers a key insight into the challenges faced by colleges and students every single day. The recommendations are based on engagement with colleges and extensive research, and if adopted would ensure we have a tertiary system which is efficient, effective and fair, meeting the needs of 100% of young people and adults. Each one is a must-read for those with any oversight of the post-16 education and skills system.”

The recommendations

Adult education 

  • The government should increase funding rates for adult education and provide demand-led funding to reflect inflation and address a decade-long stagnation.
  • Funding and administrative processes must be simplified, especially where providers work across different areas, as part of a broader tertiary system.
  • Qualifications must be expanded and be part of a coherent offer, and funding models must be adjusted to support adult-specific educational needs.
  • Government subsidies should be implemented for employers in Skills Bootcamps to encourage participation.
  • Tailored careers guidance must be specifically designed for adult learners’ needs.


  • The apprenticeship levy must be reformed and top-sliced to fund national and local priorities and ensure there is more focus on new job starters, young people and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
  • Apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds should be funded from study programme monies.
  • Research must be conducted to assess the impact, effectiveness and affordability of the current end-point assessment (EPA) process, and due consideration should be given to colleges carrying out their own EPA.
  • A modular approach to apprenticeships should be adopted to allow for skill updates and alignment with local needs, broader educational and economic goals, and integration with the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE).
  • Apprenticeships need to be aligned and incentivised more closely to the nation’s economic needs and include employer representative bodies and other stakeholders in development and review.


  • Assessment processes must be inclusive and not create unnecessarily high stakes or barriers for students.
  • Assessment should be formative and support learning and identify areas for development.
  • Assessment should be designed to motivate students and recognise progress in the development of knowledge and skills.
  • The financial and administrative burden of assessment on staff and students must be reduced.
  • New technology should be applied to make assessment processes more flexible and responsive.


  • The government should work with the education sector, awarding organisations and employers to develop a strategy that brings together the technical and academic offer for young people and adults.
  • There must be sufficient funding and resources for a well-paid professional workforce of technically qualified teachers and support staff.
  • Qualifications should not exist in a vacuum and need to be seen as part of a wider study programme which prepares young people for life as well as work.
  • A wide range of post-16 education options should be actively promoted to all students.


  • Mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) should treat colleges as strategic partners, reduce fragmentation through cross-border agreements, and simplify accountability.
  • The government should develop a national post-16 education and skills strategy that balances national priorities with local needs, firmly siting colleges as anchor institutions.
  • The government should give colleges the ability to set 30% of qualifications to meet local employer need, with 70% set centrally for the country as a whole.


  • The government must recognise online learning as a legitimate delivery mode and provide the necessary funding to enhance accessibility.
  • Digital skills must be integrated into all study programmes to prepare students for the modern workplace.
  • Sector agencies and policy makers should collaborate to identify best practices for online learning and optimise digital education experiences.
  • Teacher training programmes need to be updated to include digital pedagogy to ensure that educators are proficient in using digital tools.
  • The government needs to allocate specific funds for improving digital infrastructure including devices, connectivity and cybersecurity alongside upskilling staff.

Higher technical education

  • The government should extend more comprehensive financial support, including grants to widen access to students pursuing higher technical qualifications (HTQs), while colleges need ongoing financial support to deliver HTQs and modularised learning under the LLE effectively and flexibly.
  • The government needs to implement targeted campaigns to raise awareness and understanding of HTQs and the LLE among all stakeholders in order to meet local and national labour market needs.
  • The proportionate regulation of higher education (HE) for colleges needs to be simplified to ease the delivery of higher technical education and modular learning under the LLE.
  • Colleges and universities should be encouraged to collaborate and agree clear offers, pathways and articulation for students.
  • A wide range of alternatives for post-18 education and training must be promoted to embed a culture of lifelong learning within a whole tertiary system.

Inspection and accountability

  • The government should strengthen the role of colleges in developing LSIPs to improve strategic and leadership capacities within the sector.
  • Compliance and audit burdens on providers must be reduced to focus resources on front-line delivery.
  • Ofsted should ensure clarity on safeguarding expectations, a transparent complaints procedure, and investigate grading measures for large college groups.
  • Ofsted should consider new grading standards and ensure inspectors have relevant expertise and uniformity in practice.
  • The government should implement a single accountable body for colleges instead of multiple agencies, as part of a whole-system approach.


  • The government should enhance support for asylum seekers and refugees by reviewing access to course funding and developing a national English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) framework.
  • England should rejoin Erasmus+ while retaining the Turing Scheme as a ‘rest of world’ programme to maximise student mobility and facilitate inbound student work placements.
  • There must be a coherent and cohesive national strategy that aligns employer needs, skills training and immigration policy for the future.
  • Support for colleges to export and innovate must be increased, data collection on internationalisation in further education must be improved and the student visa policy should be reviewed.


  • The government should ensure that LSIPs are aligned and integrated into other relevant local and regional planning processes.
  • LSIPs should support and challenge employers to fulfil their strategic role in the skills system through collaboration with further education colleges, universities and schools, and therefore improve efficiency.
  • The local skills improvement fund (LSIF) must be retained longer term and embedded into the wider funding system.
  • The government should introduce accountability for the wider post-16 tertiary skills system and ensure that the role and responsibilities of universities is clear.
  • A national industrial strategy and a national post-16 education and skills strategy must be developed to provide a framework for LSIPs to align to, respond to and inform.

Mental health

  • The lived experience of further education students and staff must be routinely researched to inform emerging work on trauma and compassion informed practice.
  • The government needs to fund colleges to develop and deliver a whole-college approach to mental health and wellbeing, ensuring services are inclusive and sustainable.
  • Systems and partnerships within education, health and employment need to be aligned and fostered to support the transition and experience of students throughout education into work.


  • A common approach to information sharing for students with SEND but without EHCPs must be adopted so that colleges can meet needs promptly.
  • The government must reform disadvantage funding to support long term capacity and growth, including a specific block for students who have SEND but do not have high needs.
  • The government should introduce accountabilities to improve local authority place commissioning for students with EHCPs, ensuring timely and informed decisions leading to better transitions.
  • The provision for students with the most complex needs must be improved through better transitions to adult social care, better health inputs and a clearer status for specialist colleges.

Student experience

  • The government should put the required structures in place to support every 16-year-old to have a complete ‘offer’, making transition work more smoothly, alongside information, advice and guidance in key stage 3 and 4 and meaningful work placements.
  • The voice of colleges should be formally incorporated within local safeguarding arrangements.
  • A sector-wide strategy for enrichment should be developed to clarify purposes and properly resource enrichment and personal development activities.


  • The government must promote the FE sector through strategic marketing campaigns as a desirable employment destination, highlighting its values-driven nature.
  • Education should be included as a priority sector in Local Skills Improvement Plans.
  • The £9,000 pay gap between FE and school teachers must be eradicated, and the government should support colleges to offer flexible and hybrid working patterns.
  • As curriculum and qualification reforms are introduced, the government must provide funding for staff development and up-skilling.

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