The sector might not be about to change quite as drastically, or catastrophically, as had been expected from Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget. But the need for change is nevertheless as urgent as ever, explains Kirstie Donnelly.

So the Comprehensive Spending Review has finally been announced and, after months of speculation about exactly how deep the cuts would run, we are all breathing a collective sigh of relief at the unexpected surprise. It wasn’t so ‘bloody’ after all.

Perhaps the significant contribution that the FE sector makes to the UK economy is finally being recognised in helping to deliver the government’s plan for the future skills growth of the UK workforce.

The focus for the sector must now be the pursuit of quality

However, we’re not out of the woods yet. Back in September, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said that the FE sector was in a ‘fragile state’ and that certainly hasn’t changed. Added to that was the fact that the annual review by Ofsted was far from favourable, with Sir Michael Wilshaw’s inspectorate rating just 35 per cent of colleges as good or outstanding.

So what next? It’s vitally important that colleges and independent learning providers work more effectively with employers and accept they are there to serve their needs, and in turn the needs of the learner. Some colleges are already firmly on the case in this regard — Procat in Essex for example is fully immersed in its local employer landscape.

Closer employer links mean colleges will be able to make choices about their curriculums based on real insight which delivers not only skilled individuals but fills specific local skills shortages.

This is something that we at City & Guilds recognise and have invested considerably in. We work closely with employers on the apprenticeship reforms and are involved with two thirds of the new Trailblazer groups and we formed the Industry Skills Board (ISB) made up of a range of employers responsible for delivering apprenticeships.

The ISB recently published the Making Apprenticeships Work report, which provides a real employer view of apprenticeship reforms, how to implement successful reform and ultimately deliver quality apprenticeships.

The focus for the sector must now be the pursuit of quality; we have to push up standards right across the sector not only to address the concerns raised by Ofsted but also to ensure that we are viewed as being the best possible training option for the employers who will be making a significant financial contribution to training in the form of the levy.

They will now become the ‘customer’ of FE in the realest sense of the word as they will be making the choices of who they work with to achieve their skills needs.

This quality message also needs to get through to the learners themselves, particularly 14 to 19-year-olds who are still biased towards traditional academic learning. Our recent Great Expectations report, which surveyed over 3,000 young people, found that the vast majority of them (70 per cent) wanted to go to university despite economic modellers EMSI telling us that only 30 per cent of jobs were at graduate level.

We know that there are excellent professional and technical pathways that can give a young person a degree level education while they progress in their jobs but we need to do so much more to promote these routes.

It’s a fact that the sector must shed the reliance it has had on the government by looking for alternative routes of funding. This will include working more closely with local enterprise partnerships, tapping into new European Social Fund monies and being open to new commercial delivery models and partnerships. Equally we cannot ignore the success of the university sector in getting students to pay for their own courses and must consider how we turn the extension of 24+ loans into an opportunity by better selling the benefits to learners.

We have reached a moment in time where there has never been as much pressure on us as a sector to deliver. It will be tough, but we have the tools and the potential to make a huge contribution to the success of individuals and the country as a whole — it’s time for us to step up to the plate and show everyone what we’re made of.