Avid readers of this website will have heard me say in the past that in terms of cuts to the FE sector, we can't cut the salami ever thinner and indeed the picture for 2015/16 is looking particularly bleak.
Colleges are facing unprecedented levels of cuts and while they are doing their best to bring further innovation into curriculum and make maximum usage of the electronic agenda it is the additional burdens of changes in National Insurance/pension costs that will I believe be the real nails in the coffin for many providers. How do Colleges already in difficult financial circumstances cope with these added stresses if they have already made major changes to their modus operandi?
At the AoC conference of November in Birmingham I listened to the words from the political parties and in essence they told me what I already knew- that there is not a wealth of innovation in existence and that a lack of clarity pervades an already confused environment. Simultaneously when we hear the words from the new President and listen to the advice from the FE Commissioner it is clear that they are part of the change vehicle but are their messages for instance around Maths and English getting through to Central Government? I worry that fundamental rights to both education and health are being eroded away dramatically. So how do we address these key issues with a distinct lack of money on the table? For me it will sadly be through further restructure, further analysis of curriculum construct and great investment in the electronic agenda. Hereon in, however, every time we chip away we are probably going to start eroding quality and then we will clearly be in danger of not putting the learner first. Within my own college many staff are working excessive hours in order to combat such a risk but with such a strategy I worry for the whole issue of wellbeing of my staff. They are able and proficient in what they do and have shown ingenuity in their development of learning programmes.
Ofsted is changing as well and putting a new framework out for consultation. It is clear that it will be even more rigorous than at present but I welcome the approach because at face value it looks as though this is a model that will be applicable right across the education sector and I have to say it is remarkably similar to the current approaches applied to Further Education colleges. I look forward to seeing the response of the other sectors. It doesn't apply to Higher Education of course due to the QAA approaches in place but imagine if it did...
So after having had a bit of a rant what am I advising back at the ranch? Basically it's business as normal but with everyone re-examining curriculum construct, back up plans and use of partners. I don't want to pre-empt our investigations and subsequent analysis but I do think that this won't be enough and that we will need to think completely outside of the box. I was feeling quite deflated on the issue until last week when the lead for Hairdressing and Beauty at my college gave a presentation to staff on how the area was handling the current issues and the future. There was a glimpse of tenacity, entrepreneurship and full adoption of technology which suggested to me that there is still light at the end of the tunnel. A word of caution however that light could be another express train of funding changes hurtling towards us! Ah well back to the real job now but not without consideration given to the thousands of FE practitioners out there both front line and support that change young people's lives and ambitions on a daily basis.
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare