From education to employment

The future of FE colleges: Colleges must dramatically change what they deliver and how they deliver it

Tom Richmond, Director of EDSK

Colleges need a clearer identity and more investment to thrive say @EDSKthinktank 

With a White Paper on the future of the Further Education (FE) sector due this autumn, a new report from education think tank EDSK finds that colleges in England have been hampered by a lack of a clear purpose as well as budget cuts stretching back years, if not decades.

The report, ‘Further consideration – Creating a new role, purpose and direction for the FE sector’ shows that, to overcome these problems, colleges must dramatically change what they deliver and how they deliver it.

       The report identifies a wide range of issues facing the FE sector. Colleges have an immensely varied student body including 1.4 million adults and over 500,000 16 to 18-year-olds and offer everything from basic skills courses in literacy and numeracy up to A-levels, Bachelor’s degrees and apprenticeships.

However, by becoming providers of everything to everyone, colleges have lost a clearly defined role in our education system, particularly when compared to schools and universities.

The report also found that excessive competition among colleges has done more harm than good. Often in response to financial pressures, colleges have chosen to focus on what is best for them rather than what is best for their learners, employers and their local area. This has resulted in duplicated courses, a lack of specialisation among colleges and unnecessary confusion for learners and employers – all of which make the sector less financially secure.

In addition, the stability of the FE sector has been undermined by a serious shortfall in investment from government in recent years. Many colleges do not have enough funding for basic maintenance in their buildings, let alone new strategic investments. Cuts to capital spending and 16-18 education have hurt colleges and this requires urgent attention from government if it wants to see colleges play a greater role in our education and skills system.

The report concludes that a new approach to how colleges are funded and organised – based on the principle of ‘collective autonomy’ – is needed to ensure that FE thrives on the local and national stage and meets the ambitions set out in the ‘Augar Review’ of post-18 education.

The EDSK report recommends that:

FE colleges should be split

FE colleges should be split into separate institutions for different groups of learners:

  • Community Colleges (for basic skills courses, community learning and other entry level programmes),
  • Sixth Form Colleges (for A-levels and other classroom-based Level 2 and 3 courses) and
  • Technology Colleges (for vocational and technical training including apprenticeships up to Levels 4 and 5);

Regional FE Directors

In each area of the country, a new ‘FE Director’ should be appointed by the sector to make strategic decisions about which courses are available at each college to reduce duplication as well as promoting specialisation among nearby colleges.

Raise The Rate

Over the duration of this Parliament, the government should provide a dedicated capital investment pot for FE colleges of £1.5 billion and also increase the ‘base rate’ of funding for 16 to 18-year-olds to £5,000.

Individual Education Budgets

The government should introduce a tertiary education funding model based on ‘Individual Education Budgets’ for every learner to fund their choice of a university degree, college course or apprenticeship, and this should be accompanied by a new ‘lifetime loan limit’ of £75,000 that learners can use at any time to pay for tuition and maintenance support throughout their career.

Tom Richmond100x100Tom Richmond, Director of EDSK and a former advisor to ministers at the Department for Education, said:

“Bundling every student and course under the single banner of a ‘college’ will never make the FE sector an aspirational choice for young people and adults. Too often, it has led to colleges becoming the option for ‘those who can’t’ rather than making them the highly regarded institutions that are sorely needed across the country.

“By spinning out Technology Colleges from the rest of their current provision, the FE sector can seize the opportunity to become the centrepiece of our technical education system. Coupled with a significant increase in investment from government and a greater focus on collaboration over competition, colleges will finally be able to confidently drive economic growth and boost productivity while still supporting their local communities.”

david hughes 100 x100David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) said:

“This is yet another report which reinforces the need for a positive step-change in how the Government relates to, works with and funds colleges. It’s clear now that a new consensus has grown around the need to move on from a competitive environment, just like in the NHS, to a more collaborative one, for the benefit of students, places and employers.

“The need for a national strategy and a more stable funding base echoes what the NAO report said this week and I expect will be a central plank of the forthcoming white paper. Other recommendations raise useful insight and ideas about how policy ambitions can be delivered and add to the discussions we are having with Government as they refine their thinking and ideas.”

ruth silver 100x100Dame Ruth Silver, President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) said:

“This report takes Augar and its purpose to frame tertiary education policy for years to come seriously by offering a recipe – in the form of its set of intelligent, mutually dependent proposals – for whole-system reform capable of delivering its promise of a future for FE characterised by collaboration, partnership and purpose.

“The proposals in this report – aimed at delivering greater stability for the sector, more clarity and flexibility for learners and a greater, more dynamic utilisation of the levers of devolution in delivering local priorities – take us in this direction.

“I have no doubt it will resonate profoundly within the sector. But it is my hope, too, that it will be read widely across the education system, and within Whitehall, and that its thoughtful, far-sighted proposals and provocations will inform much-needed, open debate about the future of FE in England.”

EDSK’s advisory board is made up of experienced and respected voices from across the education and skills sector:

  • Professor Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester
  • Professor Ewart Keep, chair of Education, Training and Skills at the Department of Education at Oxford University
  • Professor Becky Francis, Director of the Institute for Education
  • Jonathan Simons, Director at Public First and former head of education at the Policy Exchange think tank
  • Mark Lehain, Director of ‘Parents and Teachers for Excellence’ and a former headteacher
  • Sarah Waite, founder of ‘Get Further’ and a former advisor to the Shadow Secretary of State for Education

EDSK (short for ‘Education and Skills’) is a think tank that aims to design new solutions to the major challenges across our education and skills system, including primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, apprenticeships and universities.

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