From education to employment

We need College Networks to help agree investment in the skills for tomorrow

David Hughes, Chief Executive, AoC

The @AoC_info FE Summit and the launch of the England report of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future dominated my week and left me feeling excited and hopeful. 

After a decade of neglect in which funding cuts were ceaseless and policy changes all too frequent, colleges deserve a decade of growth, development, and investment.

I do not think any of us are expecting a decade of plenty, but the response from the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, speaking at the FE Summit, showed that colleges are now a priority in Whitehall.

He made it clear how much the College of the Future vision has been taken on board in his thinking, with a commitment to support colleges to be able to meet the needs of people, productivity, and place.

Kate Green his Shadow also responded to the vision and recommendations in her FE Summit speech, showing the strong cross-party support which the Commission always sought.

The Commissioners have done a great job at reaching a consensus between colleges, employers, unions, students, other stakeholders, government officials and politicians.

Not everyone will agree with everything the report proposes, but there has been widespread support for the vision of colleges at the heart of the communities they are part of, supporting more people to realise their ambitions and talents, and working in close partnerships with employers.

I was heartened by the responses on Twitter #CollegeoftheFuture because the Commission was always about bringing together the often disparate and sometimes competing voices in the post-16 arena. The range and number of positive responses to the report augurs well, because it is always easier to make progress when lots of people agree on the direction.

College Networks are about about coordination and prioritisation 

That’s not to say that there are not some tricky and contested issues, because there are. Out of the 11 recommendations, it seems that only one has raised real concerns.

It’s the proposal from the Commission to give a legal duty to colleges and other education providers to develop networks and place-based strategies to meet labour market and lifelong learning needs.

It’s not a surprise that this has been the focus, because it would require college leaders and others to think about their accountabilities, their autonomy and how they work with others.

So it is worth unpacking this a little more and putting it into the context of the 10 other recommendations – the report does that across it’s 64 pages, but not everyone will have the time to read it all.

First off it is important to debunk any idea that this is about monopolies of colleges elbowing out other providers; that’s not what the report proposes and it’s clear that would not work. It is about coordination and prioritisation; and it is about offering government certainty on where to invest, and employers and learners certainty on where to go for advice and learning.

One of the drivers for this is the need for more growth in higher technical education and training to meet labour market needs. The other key driver is that developing more demand for skills requires investment up front to work with employers and communities, employ specialist staff, buy equipment. And that only happens with a long-term view.

The current system is not working for this growth, not least because colleges, ITPs and universities are all competing for what is a small market of learners and the risks are too high when competition is rife.

The network proposal is designed to address that, reaching agreement on the respective roles of all of the colleges and other providers in meeting the priorities of a place – growing sectors, emerging skills gaps, declining industries, excluded communities and groups of people. But it is more than that, because we need networks to help agree investment in the skills for tomorrow – for instance training the 30,000 plumbers in how to fit ground source heat systems to replace gas boilers, or to create the learning pathways for people to move into nursing, or for training people ready to install offshore windfarms.

I’d urge you to read the report from the Commission. Its vision should inspire, its recommendations should make you think and ultimately, I hope the report will give more confidence to college leaders that the next decade is ours for the taking.

On behalf of people, productivity and place; to help build a strong and fair recovery.

David Hughes is the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC)

11 Recommendations for a nation-specific post 16 education and skills strategy

Recommendation 1: A national strategy for education and skills to support economic growth, industrial change and lifelong learning

Government must develop a coherent post 16 education and skills strategy, with alignment to its industrial strategy – redressing nugatory competition that exists across the system, and setting out a coordinated approach to an expanded lifelong education service.

Recommendation 2: College network strategies to meet local priorities across the tertiary education system

Government should introduce a legal duty on colleges to establish networks across appropriate economic geographies. Government should set out the principles it seeks to achieve through college networks (including across population footprint and travel to work/ learn analysis), and develop a framework for their establishment – and colleges should then be invited to come forward with their models as to how these principles can be achieved in their particular contexts, for DFE approval. Networks should be introduced in a staged approach – with the third wave to be completed by 2023/ 24.

Recommendation 3: Colleges as anchor institutions within the wider local and regional ecosystem

The role that colleges play as place-making institutions at the heart of their communities needs to become a core element of their strategic remit. New college network strategies will help to build stronger partnerships with other public and private agencies and civic partners and their wider investment plans locally and regionally.

Recommendation 4: A statutory right to lifelong learning

Government must set out a new statutory right to lifelong learning. This means that lifelong education must be meaningfully accessible for people, and there is significant work required to redress deficiencies in the existing student maintenance system.

Recommendation 5: Skills guarantee for a post-COVID economy and future labour market changes

The statutory right to lifelong learning must be augmented through targeted investment to upskill, retrain and reskill to help individuals find work in higher demand priority sectors, to supplement previous qualifications and to help them maintain relevant skills. A Skills Guarantee would provide free training to upskill employees at all levels reflecting national and regional priorities, with maximum flexibility to meet sector needs and to enable upskilling of employees.

Recommendation 6: A new strategic partnership with employers

The college system needs a new, strategic partnership with employers, nationally and regionally/ locally at the network level. This means ensuring fundamentally that employers are recognised – and understand themselves to be – a crucial part of the education and skills ecosystem. This must see the voice of employers reflected centrally in the development of national and network strategies. There is a challenge here, given the insufficient sector-based employer infrastructure – and this too requires ongoing focus.

Recommendation 7: A new strategic support service to employers

College networks must work to build on existing natural specialisms to develop ‘employer hubs’.

Building on and drawing from Institutes of Technology (IoTs) where they exist/ are being developed, employer hubs would become a key strategic element of the college network offer – which must be reflected in accountability structures. These must be adequately funded as part of college network grant funding settlements.

Recommendation 8: Stable funding and accountability frameworks for colleges

College networks must be empowered to take a long-term systems focus, which is enabled by a shift towards three-year, grant funding settlements based on outcome agreements agreed at the network level – reflecting the role that the college network will collectively play across people, productivity and place.

Recommendation 9: A strategic relationship with government and simplified processes

Government must work to develop simplified oversight – driving efficiency, engendering greater trust and enabling better strategic coordination. Long-term, this should see the establishment of a single post-16 education oversight and funding body ensuring a coherent lifelong education service, and addressing nugatory competition between colleges and with other education providers.

Recommendation 10: Diverse and representative systems leaders

Systems leadership is crucial to the successful delivery of the college system’s renewal in England. The shift in funding, governance and accountability is a key element of this – but the leadership behaviours and skills are just as vital. There is a real value in ongoing engagement with leaders across the four nations, and we recommend ongoing leadership development and amplification of systems leadership through the work of the Four Nations College Alliance.

Recommendation 11: An ambitious future college workforce strategy

Pay has declined significantly over the past decade, and is a major strategic issue. We propose a new starting salary of £30,000 for teaching staff in colleges, and urgent work undertaken to prioritise increased investment in the workforce, across remuneration and investment in CPD.


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