I am sitting writing this blog from the AoC annual conference surrounded by college Principals, their number 2s and 3s and the consultants who offer them services – services they need and some they’d like. Indeed it is the services that many Principals would like to have that might effect the greatest improvements that they no longer have the funds for. Things like additional support for teaching practice. Development funding to improve the quality of their managers and leaders; support to improve their brokerage services to employers and perhaps most notable ways to help improve the parlous state of English and maths results (grade A* to C) in their institutions. For maths and English are fast becoming the straw that broke the camel’s back. Several colleges I know have had simply disastrous English and maths results with some with pass rates in single digits.

So what would these Principals like to receive for Christmas via the Autumn Statement from our new Chancellor of the Exchequer? The obvious ‘best present ever’ would be more cash. The cuts to 16-18 and adult vocational learners over the last 6 years have holed many college budgets below the waterline. In order to make ends meet colleges are scrambling to grow commercial, apprenticeship and HE provision to ensure surpluses can be used from these activities to subsidise low or no surplus-generating 16-18 provision. Others are trying to increase their market share of 16-18s through competing harder, establishing UTCs or free schools and the like.

It all adds up to a scramble to make ends meet. So top of the Christmas wish list will be more cash for 16-18-year-olds or at the very least no further trimming. The second item on the wish list would be a clarifying of purpose. What exactly does the government want FE Colleges to do? The productivity challenges have grown even sharper post the Brexit vote. There is a tightening in investment across many sectors and that isn’t good for investment in developing people – arguably the most important element in improving productivity. The Apprenticeship levy is part of an emergent industrial strategy that recognises firms need a push to invest. Taxing them in order to recycle the funds for investing in more productive workers is a great idea. Shame it took the government so long to recognise that firms don’t ever spend money they don’t feel they have to spend. Compulsion has always been required. And though I think the levy is a very good idea, many firms won’t realise the benefits and what is on offer to them and so may just see it as another tax – although a very hypothecated tax. This is particularly true of small employers and the proposal to enable larger employers to allocate a share of their levy pot to their supply chain is an excellent idea. What would be good is more investment specifically for colleges to lead in getting the message out about the levy to employers – what I would describe as brokerage.

So if solving the productivity conundrum is a number one government priority is it now the number one college priority? Should it be? And if the answer to the last question is ‘yes’ what should this mean for colleges? Clarifying the relative importance of the different activities colleges do in some form of hierarchy of importance to the rest of us would make eminent sense.

For colleges operate as vertically integrated systems. The leadership teams are required to be (in true British Victorian tradition) ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ who can cover off a large waterfront that goes from understanding Higher Education requirements; deep understanding of employer needs; in depth grasp of apprenticeship provision; knowledge of 16-18 vocational and academic achievement and let’s not forget the needs of the community and all that that entails. The tendency is often that these College leadership teams revert to the base of managing what they know and understand best. And often this is about the College’s core vocational provision.

This is why the third Christmas present would be to do what the local area reviews half promised and then failed to deliver. More colleges should be merged and new specialist institutions created from them to deliver to these agendas better, led and managed by business people who know how to run group structures. If you want a step change in performance you don’t keep doing what you’ve always done.

These new institutions should become social enterprises with FE staff as core shareholders and partners. Imagine a part of the public sector that acted and felt like John Lewis? So when Philip Hammond delivers his Autumn Statement will we get the same old lines about austerity and fiscal consolidation that his predecessor trotted out, or will he deliver some of the Christmas presents our FE Colleges might enjoy? 

Nick Isles is CEO of Corporate Agenda, advice consultancy

Twitter: @nicisles

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