For those of us interested in such things the highlight of the general election campaign so far has been a couple of serious gaffs by Labour front benchers forgetting business supporters’ names; the row over tax avoidance and David Cameron’s announcement that as far as an incoming government is concerned the education ring-fence will stay but with a twist.
Schools this time will not get any inflation-adjustment. So FE would remain outside the ring-fence facing up to 41% of cuts over five years (if the Institute for Fiscal Studies interpretation of the Autumn Statement stands). Labour is promising to include FE in its protection of spending on education. Hmm.
Labour’s Education Secretary Tristram Hunt is also arguing it’s the teaching stupid. If we don’t invest more in our teaching staff we will not see the desired improvements in outcomes for students. I think he is right. We wouldn’t be too happy being operated on by someone ‘giving it a go’ so why would we not want the same standards of rigour for professionals in the education system? But back to the cash and what it means.
Effectively the Conservatives would impose a real terms cut in education spending for schools by not raising spending in line with inflation. This would be a sort of ring-fence with a hole in it. As the Association of Colleges said this is desperately disappointing for FE. Having already borne the brunt of education cuts in this parliament it looks likely that an incoming Conservative government would dish out more of the same. Mind you Labour is hardly giving us a lot of detail. They are keeping their powder dry on what they would do apart from saying they would be producing a white paper very quickly.
But more importantly FE cannot withstand cuts of up to 41% over the next five years and survive in anything like its current shape. Something will have to give. And if that ‘give’ is all about cutting low margin provision we might see a whole raft of courses and interventions designed to give people second and third chances being removed – to the dismay of a wide range of stakeholders. Now this type of action by Government could fall foul of the law of unintended consequences. It would lead more colleges to innovate more intensely. Sometimes this will produce very positive outcomes such as more delivery aligned to meeting business need and labour market opportunity. In other ways this could lead to some groups of students not being able to access the sorts of courses that can help put them into a position to gain more meaningful qualifications or a chance of meaningful work.
So what should the next government do for FE? Leaving aside the question of how much funding it should agree, I think the following are areas that need urgent attention. They are not in any order of priority.
Information, advice and guidance is in a mess. It needs improving and fast. Too many young people think they want to do courses that lead to jobs that disappeared 10 years ago. Schools on the whole have little idea of what is going on in their local labour market and they are not preparing young people for work but for further study. Colleges do the former job far better.
Only those College courses local and national businesses want should be offered. Sounds simple but is actually quite hard to deliver mainly because so many businesses keep colleges at arms length unless the college is offering public alms. And too many colleges are not engaging enough with their local businesses. But this costs serious money to do properly
Keep improving apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are the best work-based learning routes when they work. As Lorna Unwin of the Institute of Education used to say, the apprenticeship is the qualification. Too often in the past too many apprenticeships have been nothing more than cheap labour schemes for employers.
Invest in further professionalising the teaching professionals in FE. Whether this be through a Guild, Chartered body or some other mechanism more investment is needed for the people who deliver the education and training.
Enable colleges to be freed from centralised bureaucracy. Make them more accountable to local people and local businesses. Get the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) involved in this.
Create a Department for Growth to oversee this part of the government’s growth strategy by merging DfE and BiS. OK I know it’s never going to happen but worth a mention anyway.
Now I have no idea how much all of the above is likely to cost. It might be a lot or it might be a little but come May 8 the new Cabinet Secretary or Secretaries responsible for education and skills need to ask their civil servants to get cracking on how to deliver it. Roll on May 7.
Nick Isles is deputy principal and chief executive of Milton Keynes College