After his eight year reign at the helm of the Association of colleges ended last week, Professor Martin Doel provides his thoughts on the state of the sector as he starts in a new post as the Further Education Trust for Leaderships’s professor of FE and skills.

If Nietzsche was right, then after all that the trials and tribulations they have suffered over the past eight years, colleges should be the strongest institutions in education.

In one sense this is right; colleges have developed survival skills of the highest order.

In comparison to schools and universities they are outstandingly resourceful, flexible and responsive.

On another level, however, Nietzsche’s aphorism doesn’t work.

The overhang of the capital crisis in 2009 when the then Learning and Skills Council overcommitted a capital budget by £3bn, with the consequences being borne by colleges, sustained and drastic cuts to funding for young people and for adult and constantly shifting ministerial initiatives have had an effect.

Professor Alison Wolf was right to say in the summer of 2015 that colleges were heading for the precipice.

Professor Alison Wolf was right to say in the summer of 2015 that colleges were heading for the precipice.

The outcome of 2015 Spending Review that Professor Wolf’s report anticipated was better than most expected (an outcome for which I think AoC can claim some justified credit).

Funding for young people was protected for the life of the Parliament, the adult education budget was similarly protected, albeit with the prospect of devolution to Combined Authorities or similar, and an employer levy was proposed to fund apprenticeship growth.

But in the case of young people and adults, this served only to stabilise funding and not to redress cash cuts of 14 per cent for young people and 40 per cent for adults over the preceding years.

The consequence is that signs of stress are inevitable within the further education sector, with area reviews underwritten by a restructuring cash facility being seen as a means of securing a sustainable pattern of provision.

At the outset of the new academic year there did seem to be the prospect of colleges having the breathing space to regroup and be able to respond to the challenges and opportunities laid out by the new Prime Minister and her team of ministers.

These include promoting social mobility, improving productivity and preparing for a world outside the EU. There are, though, fresh challenges ahead.

One of the most dispiriting questions every incoming minister for skills that I have spoken with has asked me is ‘what are we going to do about underperforming colleges?’

On each occasion that this question has been asked, I have replied with suppressed anger that the number of underperforming colleges is relatively small.

If some colleges were not performing as well as others that was natural and the causes were more often to be found outside colleges than inside them.

Analysis of high performing skills systems elsewhere in the world indicate that they benefit from adequate funding and a stable policy environment that then promotes high levels of trust between skills providers, government and employers.

Despite the lack of these elements in England, we still have a high performing college sector that compares well with others and from which other nations seek to learn.

That this is so is due to the quality of leadership in colleges more than the policy environment in which they operate.

The task that new ministers should address is to ensure in the forthcoming Autumn Statement that adequate funding is secured, that the coherent way ahead plotted in the Skills Plan is delivered by competent and consistent policymaking and that apprenticeship reform, in particular, does not run ahead of itself.  If these elements are in place, then colleges can be properly questioned as to their part in delivering the plan.  


To finish a few aphorisms of my own based on eight and a half years at AoC:

Keep the message simple as possible.

Repeat it many times.

Fight only when you know you can win, or you have no alternative.

Don’t fight simply to make yourself feel better or to look big.

See each battle, whether won or lost, as a part of a longer campaign.

Presume the best in people and not the worst.

Never underestimate the power of saying thank you.