Colleges have a number of different priorities for which they can be criticised for not focusing on and, says David Hughes, apprenticeships just one example.

Last week’s FE Week front page headline — ‘Colleges that ignore apprenticeships criticised’ — wrongly insinuated, in my view, that the sector’s lack of responsiveness was placing delivery of the apprenticeship programme in doubt. The trouble is, it’s really not that simple.

The article showed the proportion of Adult Skills Budget (ASB) being used by colleges in each region to deliver apprenticeships. The range was from 12 per cent in London to 42 per cent in the North East and readers were encouraged to think that something was ‘wrong’ with the colleges in London.

This is a classic example of a national target leading to simplistic criticism — it may well be that some colleges should do more on apprenticeships, but next week we could see any number of other headlines criticising colleges for not meeting the needs of the unemployed, for people with mental health challenges, for literacy and numeracy, for supporting greater community engagement and cohesion, for helping people stay active in later life. The list could go on, and over the years I am sure that there have been headlines on each.

Whatever the public funding levels, priorities need to be set and more needs to be done to stimulate employer and individual investment

The nub of this is that there is not enough public funding to meet all of the potential priorities of any college in any community.

The cuts, since 2009, have been brutal and heightened the issue, but there never has been enough and never will be. The result is that devil-and-deep-blue-sea decisions have to be made to prioritise the use of public funding. And in recent years those decisions have almost wholly been about what to cut rather than what to fund.

The Spending Review will no doubt bring more public funding cuts to challenge colleges even further. I’m not looking forward to the announcement because more opportunities for people to learn will be lost and for every lost opportunity is an adult who can’t get a job, a promotion, read to their children, learn English as a citizen, stay active in later life. But there is an important ‘decision’ I am looking out for on the apprenticeship levy.

The Chancellor has his own tough choice to make on the levy. He has the opportunity to use the income from the levy to protect the FE budgets. In so doing he could unlock social mobility and productivity gains, as well as the health, well-being, citizenship, community, family, tolerance and cohesion outcomes which other evidence proves. He also has the opportunity of substituting employer levy funds for public money. For the sake of millions of people wanting to get on in life I hope he makes the right choice.

Whatever the public funding levels, priorities need to be set and more needs to be done to stimulate employer and individual investment. The likely devolution of commissioning the ASB will, where it works well, support more joined-up plans for meeting the range of needs in an area through a mixture of providers — colleges, universities, independent providers, employers, third sector, community organisations. College decisions in those places will be easier, allowing them to play to their strengths and support others to do likewise.

The best plans will lead to clarity on the priorities in terms of which people and communities should be offered opportunities and what the outcomes should be — jobs, progression in work, savings on health and care budgets, higher rates of literacy and numeracy and so on. In turn, those plans should lead to more investment by employers and by people in their own learning.

Let’s not point the finger at colleges every time we find something they are not doing. Let’s make devolution work to better co-ordinate what’s needed in an area and make learning, skills and employment support so attractive that more employers and individuals decide to invest their own money. That’s the best way to develop the society and economy we all want.