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Has much really changed in 22 years?

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Having spent far too many years working in and around the FE college sector, we were relaxing over a glass of Aldi best red the other night and started to reflect on FE and the past 22 years since incorporation in 1992.

It is a long time for a sector to operate without any independent analysis of its effectiveness and there aren’t many businesses that can say they have survived for 22 years without a complete transformation of their business model. Even the NHS has had many incarnations – some for better, some for worse during this period.

There is no doubt that FE has responded to the numerous changes in course that respective governments have taken during this time, tacking to the left, to the right, whilst trying to steer a steady course against the prevailing winds.

Many millions of people have benefited in some way and there is no doubt that lives have been transformed.

However, hundreds of billions of pounds have gone into FE during this time. Has it delivered value for money for the taxpayer, is the sector responding to the needs of its local community and businesses and, fundamentally, is it fit for purpose for the next 22 years? We paused and today read with interest the comments of the Chief Inspector of OFSTED when he gave evidence to the select committee.

Since 1992, there really has never been any review of the role of FE and the contribution it makes or should make to UK PLC and the broader society.
So, with the commissioner visiting many more colleges, and it looking likely with many OFSTED grade 3s and 4s being reported in colleges over the past six months (particularly if OFSTED place a greater weighting on engagement with employers), with the mean financial surplus in FE Colleges appearing to be a deficit – it looks as though Sir David may need a new pair of shoes as he will be walking many miles with his visits and those of his advisers.

We listened closely to an interview in November at the AOC conference from a very senior representative of the FE sector, published in this journal about the role of a college – the gist was ‘it is whatever its local community wants it to be’ – in our daily lives, that’s no way to run a business we would say – there needs to be a distinct mission, strategy and business plan for growth and development.

So, we simply pose a question: is it now right for a government post an election to have a close look at what the purpose of FE is all about? And please we ask any such review should NOT be lead by a recently retired principal who have been part of the failure of the system itself we would argue. Let them retire gracefully with their pension pots – not come back as a consultant to another failed college and bring their ideas to influence the naive governors who are there because of representation rather than the skills they bring.

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Surely it needs someone who is a business person, with empathy for the sector, to come forward and rise to the challenge.

So what have we got in the past 22 years for our tax payer investment?

  • The curriculum looks much the same as it did 22 years ago – we held a session just this week to discuss this with a forward thinking college and they all agreed nothing had really changed.
  • We have gleaming new buildings, built on the back of cost efficiencies and higher utilisation business plans – has that really achieved what it set out to do – in Peter’s previous life at KPMG, there was a direct correlation between two things, high profile principals and big gleaming new buildings and colleges falling into financial oblivion. We have seen plenty of gleaming principal offices over the past few years, the size of a football pitch and board rooms that would do a PLC proud, – contrast that with our business, we own our business and neither of us have either a PA or an office! It is just not needed nor can be justified in this day and age with technology and tightening financial resources.
  • We have escalating senior staff salaries, whilst the front line has not witnessed anywhere near the same increases, professional development or improvement in support to learners.
  • We have many FE colleges not being major players in the Apprenticeship market for 16-19, which is a key government priority and a key LEP priority. Just look at the SFA funding allocations to witness how few colleges are players in this market (and if they are a player, most of it is subcontracted to the independent providers. Many don’t see it as their core business, but isn’t part of the role of a college to serve local businesses and the skills agenda? The Chief Inspector of OFSTED today hit the nail on the head, and we await the toughening up of the inspection regime to look at this aspect of provision. For most general FE, it should be part of the core mission and vision.

Finally, can the sector really withstand the increasing cost of pensions, with salary costs still averaging in excess of 60% of all costs, with colleges closed for at least 12 weeks a year and have huge property estates, many of which carry a debt burden that normal businesses can not withstand?
But why, we ask, would this be addressed with any credibility if the principal who leads the organisation is looking to retire on a pension pot north of £1.5m? (and many of them will be).

Please don’t say we have to provide pensions under the 1992 Act. Subsidiary companies can be created to hive off support services, and management services and the VAT mitigated as well – but it’s like turkeys voting for Christmas, where is the motivation? Unpaid governors are unlikely to highlight the opportunities. It’s called risk and reward in a commercial environment and it looks all reward with no risk!

So in summary, and it’s just an opinion and we are happy to share a platform to debate the points, in the past 22 years colleges have had a massive windfall of funding that is significantly in excess of any RPI measure. What do we have? Outdated curriculum which has not really changed, financial health which is teetering on the brink of insolvency for many, and a focus on activities which businesses and the economy don’t want. Yes, colleges are picking up failings with the schools system, but that is not an excuse for the investment that has been made in the past.

It’s time for a new model of governance, management, initiative and drive – and that can start with a review of what the role and shape FE should take for the next 22 years. The conclusions will look very different to what we have now we suspect. Who will come forward to take on this mantle?

Peter Marples and Di McEvoy-Robinson are co-owners of Aspire Achieve Advance, a grade 1 OFSTED provider

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