From education to employment

Brave decisions and opaque detail

Well, the budget announcement came out and there was some news for us, though really “not a lot.”

I suppose what we heard about, in summary, was the introduction of an employer’s levy, a “youth obligation” which will cut benefits to those who do not engage, and the news that cuts will continue, albeit at a slower rate than had originally been anticipated.

In general I was completely underwhelmed. Yes, apprenticeships are about skills but skills are a lot more than just apprenticeships – however I am not clear this is widely understood.

There again, with the Institutes of Technology issue in the productivity plan, “fixing the foundations” does resonate to some extent. As with most things in life, the devil is in the detail and how we jigsaw the components is crucial.

The Government has just realised that employers tend not to invest in skills – whoopee! How many years has the sector been saying that?

Equally there is a lot of FE that needs sorting out, so we shouldn’t sit on our laurels either or be smug! The sector should be ashamed of its inadequate colleges.

We need single representation by the Association of Colleges – not the Association plus a proliferation of other organisations – and if we don’t do the best for our learners we should be chastised.

By contrast there are also many colleges which are creating excellence and beating bureaucracy to make a massive impact.

When there is a failing supermarket or shop in our high street it doesn’t matter how it got to that stage: it closes. I recognise that FE is not as simplistic as that, but it needs to get a damn sight closer to it. And the FE Commissioner is certainly making inroads into this.

So what’s the plan then? Many colleges have restructured massively in recent months and are probably realising that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Personally, I am of the view that the real restructure will start when we have all the facts. We clearly have the protected schools up to age 16 regarding funding, but I am glad to say schools are now scrutinised on quality within the ‘coasting schools’ definition.

Include maths and English as a separate category as well, Mr Cameron, and you may start to clamp down on the maths/English agenda in schools/academies. In turn that may reduce the magnitude of problems for us in FE who, quite frankly, continue to pick up the pieces.

So here is my blueprint for the future, which I hope will bring common sense to this difficult situation without compromising the aims of Government and of those in the FE sector delivering the goods:

  • Get agreement on final funding methodologies 16-19, 19-24, 24+;
  • Gain acceptance that funding levels cannot be further salami-sliced;
  • Gain the detail of the new apprenticeship methodology, avoiding as much bureaucracy as possible;
  • Bring about demonstrable change with AoC, Schools Commissioner, FE Commissioner and SFA;
  • Include LEPs in the above strategy to ensure appropriate geographical coverage.

My own college is in the South West, where we have a significant proportion of brilliant colleges. Irrespective, I do feel that the above could be applicable nationally.

And here’s another thought: if the Schools Commissioners became Skills Commissioners might that start to bring parity? Ah well, back to the tablets…..

To all my colleagues in the sector and our many supporters, I hope there is some sort of summer break for you before the onslaught of next term.

I will close with a mention of my staff meeting. We started with pupils from Herons’ Moor Academy – a primary academy part of the College-sponsored Multi Academy Trust – singing songs from Oliver. It was compelling, and moreover brought home the message of the partnership and support we have had setting up the Trust from Sir David Carter and others.

I leave you, Mr Cameron, with the magical phrase: “Please sir, I want some more.”

Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare

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