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Time for colleges to come of age

Asha Khemka OBE is principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College
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As 2009 draws to a close I’d like to offer my personal reflections on what has been a challenging and eventful year in FE – a year that demonstrated once again the resilience of colleges and our ability to respond to rapid change – before looking at what the New Year may bring.

There is certainly much to look back on. The last 12 months have brought change, turbulence and crisis rarely seen in other sectors. Yet, despite being battered and bruised, there are opportunities for colleges to emerge even stronger and face the future with growing optimism.

The issue that dominated FE in 2009 was undoubtedly the capital scheme catastrophe – the biggest to hit the sector in recent times, if not ever.

Despite the pledge of world-class buildings and state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and learning, colleges (with the exception of a lucky few) were left with nothing except a black hole in their balance sheets after spending tens of millions of pounds getting their building projects ‘shovel-ready’ – investment that was absolutely necessary, according to the Learning and Skills Council, for schemes to progress.

But it is our local communities that are counting the real cost of the failed Building Colleges for the Future programme. Mansfield and Ashfield, areas served by my college, have struggled to survive the decline of the mining and textile industries that were once the heartbeat of their communities. Our new college promised jobs, the catalyst for further regeneration and inspirational educational opportunities for our growing student population while raising aspirations and skill levels across the area.

Now colleges have no choice but to explore alternative sources of funding to resurrect their building plans and develop the new facilities that are so desperately needed.

And while the Government talks about record investment in the FE estate and the millions spent on rebuilding programmes, the question I’d ask is ‘would the capital fiasco have been allowed to happen to schools?’. The capital crisis, more than any other issue, brought the funding gap between schools and colleges sharply into focus.

Then there were the problems to hit the flagship Train to Gain programme; with the LSC’s budget over-spend and subsequent cap on growth expenditure having much in common with the capital debacle. It means colleges are prevented from achieving further growth in this important area and businesses are denied opportunities to re-skill and up-skill their workforce.

2009 was also the year when the Machinery of Government implementation gained pace, with the announcement that three separate bodies – the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA), Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and local authorities – would replace the soon-to-be dissolved LSC.

As if these issues weren’t challenging enough, it has happened against the backdrop of the worst recession in living memory.

But even in these difficult times, colleges have worked hard to adapt and respond to the many changes facing the sector – demonstrating innovation and creativity while retaining their focus on the core business of teaching and learning.

Once more we have shown our resilience, flexibility and ability to cope with whatever is thrown at us.

So what might 2010 hold for the sector? More change, certainly. More challenges, definitely. Further public sector funding cuts mean colleges will need to be 10-15% more efficient, while the forthcoming General Election may bring a change in Government with its own priorities and vision for education and skills. We will also need to invest a great deal of time and energy building new relationships with the YPLA, SFA and our local councils.

But, crucially, there will also be opportunities for those colleges willing to embrace change. We have demonstrated time and again our ability to respond to challenges and change. However, the ones facing the sector over the next few years are potentially so great and diverse that perhaps a fresh approach to how we do business is needed. This means being smarter – looking at every aspect of the business and developing powerful partnerships.

Can colleges in their current form survive? Who knows. So now is the time, in my view, for colleges to give serious consideration to new models of delivery; namely federated structures. A federation – or formal grouping of colleges under a single vision and strategic direction – would allow for greater efficiencies on shared services such as learner records, finance, human resources and marketing; generating savings that could be reinvested in teaching and learning.

This model would also give colleges a bigger voice and greater influence on the national stage while also allowing them to engage more meaningfully with regional development agencies, local authorities and other partners to plan provision across a region or sub-region in a way that is currently not possible.

Meanwhile, the new funding regime heralds a new era for FE and with it the opportunity to develop strong relationships with our new funding bodies. Colleges will be working more closely with their local authorities, for example, than they have done for many years.

Therefore the strategic conversations currently taking place between principals and council leaders will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of the role colleges play in raising educational attainment and skill levels, together with acting as agents for social justice and aiding local regeneration. Let’s hope this greater appreciation leads to closer collaboration and joined-up thinking.

But perhaps the biggest opportunity of all can be found in the pages of the new Skills for Growth Strategy, which for the first time puts colleges well and truly in the spotlight. The Government sees the FE sector as a key player in delivering its ambitious strategy; promising ‘earned autonomy’ to high-performing colleges following the “remarkable” improvement in standards of teaching and learning across the FE and skills sector over the past decade.

However, with this comes the responsibility to demonstrate we are a mature sector that can be trusted to manage our own affairs and quality improvement in a responsible way. So, in return for the greater freedoms being promised, it is now time for colleges to finally come of age.

We are ready to deliver.

All eyes are on Government to do the same.

Asha Khemka OBE is principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College

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