The most reliable thing about the General Election 2010 is the anticipated date of 6 May; probably the least certain aspect is the outcome. Certainly the main political parties are working hard to create a clear political divide, not least in the area of education. One undeniable outcome is that the retirement of 119 MPs, including 77 Labour members, means that there will be new people around the Cabinet table, whatever their political allegiances.

So what does this mean for colleges? Earlier this month the Association of Colleges (AoC) held a pre-election manifesto event attended by principals and college governors from around England. The conference gave a platform to Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Lord Young, for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, and Iain Wright, Minister at the Department of Children, Schools and Families, presented the case for Labour.

Ian Wright was, as ever, passionate about the work of colleges in working with the disadvantaged, disengaged and in delivering practical, work-related skills. Lord Young was impressively frank with the audience. In delivering a prepared speech he was predictable in his vision of FE as central to the economy and delivering economically valuable skills. But in answer to a specific question about the Machinery of Government, Lord Young said that he had "inherited the situation" and confessed that he had to ask someone to prepare him a diagram explaining the inter-relationships and had then agreed it looked overly-complicated.

It is important to note the importance that all three political parties placed on their relationship with AoC; indeed the opposition parties specifically referred to the extent to which their policies had been informed by our discussions.

The Liberal Democrats, David Laws and Stephen Williams, are important not only as a consequence of their influence in a possible hung parliament, but also for their role in local government, not least in leading nearly 50 councils. Their message has been consistent in identifying education as one of their four policy priorities. Of particular interest to colleges is their commitment to the following:
  • A pupil premium to tackle disadvantage up to the age of 19 in schools and colleges
  • Covering the cost of level three qualifications over the age of 25
  • Allowing 14-year-olds to move from school to college

In expressing support for Higher Education delivered in Further Education colleges, Stephen Williams paid tribute to his local college, City of Bristol, not least for widening access to HE qualifications.

Conservative MP Michael Gove's interest in the Swedish model of Free Schools has been widely covered in the national press. Colleges are already involved in the shake-up of secondary education; in sponsoring academies, studio schools and university technical colleges. Inevitably any further changes impact on the work of colleges and may put further strain on funding. The Conservatives' focus on traditional education may also impact on achievement at age 16 and on the role of work-related education.

When David Willetts addressed the AoC audience his key message was to trust colleges, restore a funding body for colleges and to restore autonomy. In return he made it clear that funding would be limited, that they expected corresponding cuts by colleges would impact on backroom services and the accountability would be through a single annual conversation. This promise was welcomed by the audience but, as ever, the devil will be in the detail.

The AoC's election manifesto contains eight key recommendations. In relation to young people we are asking for the opportunity to educate 14-year-olds full-time as appropriate, to see the provision of impartial and informed advice and guidance and adult learning should be supported by skills accounts. All Higher Education within FE Colleges should be directly funded. The other points include a commitment to the autonomy of colleges and a simplification of the regulation and quality assurance landscape.

Whatever the outcome of the election, colleges are already experiencing the fall-out of the banking crisis and the uncertainties from the Machinery of Government changes. Despite Government promises that frontline services would be protected, the efficiency gains added to the 2010-11 budget means cuts in courses and teaching this summer. This will impact on students in reducing the availability of courses, increasing fees and will potentially see them having to travel further to find what they want. For staff it will mean the threat of redundancies. Almost inevitable cuts in public funding are likely to be exacerbated as the responsibility for 16-19 learning moves back to the Town and County Halls just as they will need to address reducing income levels.

In the midst of these uncertainties and harsh realities, a message of trust, confidence and restored autonomy is inevitably welcome. Colleges are, as ever, ready for the challenge and the accountability. A tighter reign on public spending is inevitable and this, arguably, will have a more significant impact on colleges and their students than the result of the Election itself.

Pat Bacon is president of the Association of Colleges, representing FE, Sixth Form and Tertiary colleges across Great Britain

 

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