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Luke Walpole, Account Manager and FE communications specialist at PLMR

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It is often said that change, and indeed success, is measured in decades. It was more than six years ago that @George_Osborne announced plans to build the #NorthernPowerhouse. 

Since, we have had three different Chancellors, two different Prime Ministers and one unfulfilled promise.

Ensuring the same does not happen to the Government’s apparent support for colleges and further education (FE) requires a long-term lens, even following yesterday’s news that the Treasury’s 3-year Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) is to be shelved.

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said that this reining in has been done to “provide certainty,” amid an unforgiving Covid climate. Yet there has been an understandable level of disappointment at this news.

This is coupled by a belief that this short-termism – no matter how necessary – will both ‘water down’ existing, long-term commitments, and gut projects which hoped to begin in earnest.

Delivering Promises 

Thankfully, this is not necessarily the death knell for sustained investment in FE and technical education. Indeed, the Government has been vocal in its support of FE and Skills to date.

The Prime Minister’s recent announcement of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee was encouraging, as well as the £1.5bn worth of funding which has been pledged to support adult FE and capital improvements to facilities.

This goes alongside the Kickstart Scheme, an initiative which incentivises businesses to take on apprentices, even if the success of this is yet to be fully appreciated. Throw in the establishment of the ‘gold standard’ T Levels, and it would strongly suggest that the Conservatives are at least paying lip service to the idea of an overhaul in technical education and the college system.

It was undeniably curious to hear an Old Etonian and Oxford graduate claim he wishes to dispel the “snobbish” distinction between technical and academic education, but this is a feeling which is rippling throughout the Government.

The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, said during the Conservative Party Conference that “for far too long we (as a country) have not put enough focus and attention on the college system.”

Alok Sharma, Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), echoed the need to build a Skills pipeline which accommodates for the “jobs of tomorrow.”

Clearly, a college system which is backed up by high-quality FE and technical education is a genuine priority for the Government. While this may augur well, verbal commitments need to be backed up with tangible support across the country.

Beyond the Leaking Ceilings

The Government’s £400m funding package for 16-18 education in the Summer of 2019 was entirely necessary, but in many instances did not touch the sides.

Similarly, the Prime Minister is adamant that by bringing £200m worth of funding forward this year, we will be able to “[fix] the leaking ceilings” and improve colleges across the country. But so many FE Colleges need more than a sprucing up. If that was all they needed, they would enlist Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and the new series of Changing Rooms.

No matter the admirable intentions which underpin it, a commitment to ‘Levelling Up’ cannot be delivered through singular, piecemeal investments. We cannot ‘Build Back Better’ without a coherent, cohesive and wide-ranging investment plan which focuses on high-quality skills and FE, empowering colleges with the tools to support students of all ages.

The mishandling of FE in the last decade serves as a caustic reminder of the dangers which come with ad hoc funding. All of this points to the need to maintain a long-term plan for colleges and FE, even if the Chancellor doesn’t want to commit to a comprehensive review.

So many people can point to the importance of colleges, technical education, and FE. On a macro, economic level, it is vital. EY recently concluded that a high-quality skills pipeline actively promotes international investment, while there is an obvious need to supply employers with a highly trained workforce in the skills they need. This will become especially important in the country’s post-Brexit future.

But it is also on a micro level that the importance of colleges comes to the fore. As a community hub, colleges are often unparalleled. Giving people of all ages the chance to upskill, or reskill entirely, opens more doors than just one to a new job. This has been particularly important in recent months, as so many colleges have gone above and beyond to continue delivering courses.

Colleges and the FE sector are not alone in calling for support during these immensely challenging times. But now is the opportunity to ensure that the Government makes good on its promises and invests widely and strategically in a sector which has suffered from a chronic lack of support. Just because we will not have a Comprehensive Spending Review, it doesn’t mean funding shouldn’t be comprehensive.

Luke Walpole, Account Manager and FE communications specialist at PLMR

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