The Labour Party chose to launch its new manifesto for FE at the Association of College's conference. New Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt, chose the AoC platform to make his first major speech. This is a significant moment. The opposition are taking FE seriously. But so are the Government. Both Matthew Hancock, Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise and Vince Cable Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills spoke at the conference committing further resources to FE. This is important for ending decades of indifference to FE by the policy elite. The mood music is changing.
The sudden reawakening (well since it all began under Lord Mandelson in 2009) of an interest in industrial policy has alerted the political class to the need for more intermediate skills, entrenching of basic skills and development of above level 4 skills. All these requirements are delivered in spades by FE. Yet for years our students aged 16-18 have received around 20% less per head in funding. This has been, and remains, an illogical allocation of resources. So what is planned by Labour?
ITEs is the answer: which stands for Institutes of Technical Education. These new institutions will be licensed and only colleges meeting certain criteria will gain the licence. The criteria are that the College has specialist provision in a vocational area; high quality provision of English and Maths and strong employer and local labour market links. UKCES may be given the baton for deciding the process and criteria for licensing. In addition FE lecturers must hold a teaching qualification and have level 2 or above in English and Maths and spend time in their industries each year to get in touch with where the frontier for their skills lies.
This is an interesting approach in that it sees responsiveness to the local labour market as a key driver for FE which the government licencing of ITEs will reinforce. It also recognises that FE is a profession with professional standards that need to be upheld. We no longer want to be treated by an apocathery rather than a qualified doctor so why would we want to be taught by someone with no teaching qualifications?
Now it is fair to say that the people I spoke to at the AoC conference were not entirely convinced by the proposals. 'Yet more bureaucracy' was the complaint. However I think these proposals need to be given a strong welcome for the following reasons. First it is likely that to run such a system an incoming Labour government will need to divert cash from other parts of the education system. Money to train people will be required. Excellence costs (just ask any major public school such as Eton or Westminster) so enabling Colleges to interface with local business will require specialists in relationship management to broker solutions to skills needs.
Second specialising in developing expertise to suit the local labour market needs to be encouraged. Growth, wealth and jobs are local phenomena. FE sits at the heart of a local system of demand and supply. Newly empowered LEPs will need strong delivery partners who can also operate strategically. A national network of specialist vocational institutions will encourage clustering effects around those centres and help attract the best suited staff and additional funding to them. No longer will a local knowledge economy be described as needing Universities alone. It will also include the local College or Colleges.
Third being a specialist at one thing does not rule out being a general provider of a range of skills. At Milton Keynes College we are developing several Centres of Excellence to meet the demands of our local labour market from Hospitality, to Digital and Media to Sport to Engineering. Some of these Centres are close to being where we want them to be. Others are still at drafting stage. The important thing is that many colleges are beginning to work in the way the Labour Party proscribes.
Ultimately a system designed to be responsive to local need and local employer demand needs itself to be responsive. That is why we might need to think again about having two departments responsible for education and skills. Why not a single Ministry for Education and Growth?
Nick Isles is deputy principal of Milton Keynes College – follow him on Twitter at @dpmkcollege