EMFEC celebrated its one hundredth anniversary with an FE star-studded conference in Daventry last week.
The event invited key leaders, commentators and policy makers to reflect on some of the biggest announcements made in FE recently, including the departure of Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), and Simon Waugh, chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service.
Despite losing two of his right hand men, John Hayes MP, minister of state for further education, skills and lifelong learning, used the conference to call for “stability” and “certainty” in the sector.
“Having secured the budget, I want to now make sure we get it right in terms of how we can frame the future around adult learning,” Mr Hayes said.
“We just need some stability and some certainty about the future.”
He added: “It will not be the imposition of policy by me, on you.
“Part of the concerns about previous regimes was that the approach wasn’t sufficiently consultative.
It will not be the imposition of policy by me, on you”
“It seem as though the government had an idea, imposed it and then asked afterwards.”
Mr Hayes was not taking any questions from the media due to time constraints.
Nick Linford, managing director of Lsect and managing editor of FE Week, made the opening presentaion, and said there could be a significant “shift of power” once Mr Russell and Mr Waugh leave.
Mr Linford said: “I think one of the reasons Geoff is going is because of a shift of power towards the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).
“Michael Davis, chief executive at the UKCES, is very much promoting a new policy where your money won’t actually be given to you by the SFA – but to employers.
“This is at a time when the SFA are losing staff and thus trying to reduce the number of contracts they are managing.”
EMFEC has been a membership body for FE colleges in the East Midlands since 1912.
The body, which holds a charitable status, offers a variety of services to both colleges and training providers, including conferences, networking opportunities, facilitating collaborative work and educational support.
EMFEC also provides the Association of Colleges (AoC) East Midlands with responsive representational services.
The centenary conference, entitled “An audience with…”, held a number of panel discussions with key players from all parts of the FE sector.
Toni Pearce, vice president (FE) for the National Union of Students (NUS), said she was unsure how employers would be held accountable if they were funded directly for apprenticeships, as proposed by the UKCES in the recent ‘Employer Ownership of Skills’ report.
“How will that accountability work for those employers who are directly funded by government?” Pearce said.
“There’s no real method for accountability to make sure students are getting a quality experience there.”
She added: “To just have the word of the employer, which is kind of what we feel like we have at the moment, and success rates, makes that almost impossible to hold them to account for the public money they are being funded with.”
Toni said it is particularly difficult for the NUS to communicate with learners on poor quality apprenticeships.
“It’s actually really hard to find out what the quality is like on the ground, and engage with apprentices who are working in short term or low quality apprenticeships,” she said.
“It puts them in a difficult position when we’re telling them to feed back.”
The conference was also attended by a number of apprenticeship and vocational training providers, including JHP Group Ltd, IMPACT apprenticeships and TQ Training Group Ltd.
Jim Chambers, chief executive of JHP Group Ltd, said the ongoing coverage around short apprenticeships was “hyping” the issue out of proportion and “degenerating” the apprenticeship brand.
“Any self respected provider wouldn’t be offering any short apprenticeship programmes,” Mr Chambers said.
“We’ve got a hyping of these…what are frankly degenerating the brand.”
Mr Chambers said despite working through “one of the toughest years” in his career, he was “cautiously optimistic” about the recent announcements made by the SFA.
He said: “We’re very much into employability and vocational training, and I am encouraged by some of the language coming from the SFA, which is almost aping that coming from Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
“I’m cautiously optimistic and I actually believe we can help influence, if we’re positive, the policy makers.”
The afternoon session included a discussion about the perspective of sector membership bodies, debated by Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), David Hughes, chief executive of NIACE, and Paul Warner, director of employment and Skills at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP).
Mr Warner said: “In terms of whether Hayes’ rhetoric will ever be lived up to, I suppose I could be slightly provocative in saying probably not.
“I don’t think that’s anything against John Hayes, but ultimately he’s a government minster
“He’s at the top of a big civil service and by the time the rhetoric goes into the civil service machine, it comes out one way or another looking remarkably similar to whatever it was that went before it.
“It’s very difficult to turn rhetoric into reality.”
Mr Doel added: “I did bash on at him at length the other day, about, what you’re attempting here is cultural change.
“Cultural change takes a period to embed and it won’t just happen because you make a few policy announcements, and no matter how many infusing speeches you make, it won’t happen.
“It won’t happen in colleges, it won’t happen in providers, it wont happen in officials, it won’t happen in funders, unless it has time and some degree of consistency to the message.”
EMFEC also hosted a celebratory dinner on the night before the conference, inviting delegates to pledge money to the Helena Kennedy Foundation (HKF) and take part in a charity auction.
The guests raised just shy of £2,000 for HKF, a charity which helps provide financial bursaries, mentoring and support to a number of disadvantaged students from the further and adult education sectors.