The 157 Group’s latest report, Future Colleges, outlines four principles it wants those in power to adhere to in determining education policy, as Lynne Sedgmore explains.

At the 157 Group, we know about the excellent work that colleges, both our members and others, are doing every day across the country to enable learners to acquire the skills they need for successful working lives.

We also know about the demands of policymakers for provision to continually improve, and for us to respond to new initiatives, increased competition and seemingly unending change.

We know about all this, but we wanted to find out more about the scale of the college contribution to the skills agenda. What we discovered has led to the publication of our new report Future Colleges, in which we set our clearly not only what colleges have achieved, but what we believe they can do in the future if policymaking recognises their importance.

In six key areas, we set out how critical colleges are to our skills system how they have led the way in the resurgence of apprenticeships, are the leading providers of technician skills at levels three and four, how they deliver higher education designed to meet local employment needs and have been key to raising literacy and numeracy rates.

Colleges teach the majority of young people post-16, mainly in a vocational context, and act as recruitment hubs for employers, securing meaningful work experience, implementing targeted programmes for unemployed people, and supporting routes into learning and job progression for adults.

It is colleges, rather than any other form of new institution, that should be trusted to lead the future development of our skills system

Given this track record, we argue strongly that it is colleges, rather than any other form of new institution, that should be trusted to lead the future development of our skills system.

We describe a future where every community in the country has a well-respected and trusted college which is at the centre of collaboration in the local skills system, a leader and innovator in high-level technical education, a hub of workforce development for all employers and the focus for community cohesion, personal development and enterprise strategies.

We know that colleges have the leadership to be able to achieve this level of influence and importance — many are already in this position. But we are convinced that our national approach to policymaking has hindered rather than helped the many achievements to date.

For all the talk of ‘freedom and flexibility’, we hear all too often that the detailed implementation of policy delivers quite the opposite effect, that funding rules change in ways that make it hard to deliver responsive local solutions, and that, all too often, it feels as though provision is dictated by a set of system-wide diktats, which remove, rather than promote, autonomy.

And we know that there remains much inequity in the system — leaving colleges, schools and universities judged by widely differing measures and systems, and creating perverse behavioural incentives that affect the provision of careers education, among other things.

So we are using our vision to call upon a future government to also play its part, and to commit to four key principles in education policy making. The first is stable structures — refraining from further changes to structures and institutions and from imposing more top down delivery initiatives on the skills system.

The second is equal treatment — in ensuring both funding and accountability treats all learners’ experiences as individual, whether they be in school, college, university or employment; and the third is the freedom to innovate — for local college, community and business leaders to devise and deliver solutions.

The fourth is durable funding — a stable financial settlement within which to plan.

We hope that these are key principles that all in the sector can champion.

With only seven months to go to the next general election, we know that there will be many policy changes suggested. We will support those that can be tested against our four principles. And we hope, in this way, to help to create a long-term future for our vitally important skills system.