Former House of Commons Education Select Committee specialist Ben Nicholls is head of policy and communications at London’s Newham College. He writes exclusively for FE Week every month.

A year ago, when I was appointed to Newham College, I didn’t know all that much about FE (it’s okay, I said so at my interview — they knew what they were letting themselves in for).

I wanted to work in FE because I’d always thought it did some of the most valuable work in the education sector, because of its spot-on focus on employment and skills and progression, and because I was fed up of seeing vocational study treated with less equity than its academic neighbour.

And I was excited at the prospect of a trailblazing job — the first in-house role in the sector focussing on policy and colleges’ involvement in its development.

If I had any fear about the role, it was that there might not be enough policy stuff to get my teeth into — could my job be the only one in the sector because there wasn’t enough to do? How quickly that fear disappeared.

FE colleges, and vocational education more broadly, still lack the attention they deserve and need, but we cannot complain, this year, of a deficiency of government consultations.

It doesn’t take a genius — much less a newbie to the sector — to recognise that 2014 will present a number of challenges to colleges, as some of the reforms become reality, and within an increasingly straitened climate

Within a week in post, I was grappling with Chartered Status, soon followed in rapid succession by the FE Guild (as then was), qualifications reform, accountability, the achievement of white working-class children, capital funding, the development of apprenticeships and traineeships,
Ofsted frameworks, and several more besides.

All this, of course, was as well as the debates, the events, the meetings with MPs, the working parties, the research projects, the cross-sector fora, the internal and external communications, the public relations, and — by far the most fun, of course — my monthly rants for FE Week.

What a year it has been. At the end of it, though, are we any clearer on the future direction of FE policy, and do we feel better engaged in its development?

Perhaps this is inevitable, but my answer to those questions is a resounding ‘yes’ and ‘yes’.

While we may not all have agreed with every word forthcoming from the government, the resultant picture of the future seems increasingly clear.

It is clear, not just from the follow-up to the Richard Review, but from the development of traineeships and from the personal focus of all three major party leaders, that apprenticeships are not just here to stay, but will change and grow in a number of ways.

If there is a danger here, it is that those for whom these pathways are not the right answer will feel compelled to pursue them — rather, indeed, as some might argue has happened with university degrees — but we are, perhaps, some way from that just yet.

Similarly, the government has been clear on which qualifications it values, and why, and how performance measurement will reflect that.

It has been clear on the principles it wishes to see applied to funding, particularly of apprenticeships, and it has been clear that it expects the sector to lead itself on matters of professionalisation and development.

Even if this is a cover story for cuts, autonomy should be welcome, and the appointment of David Russell as the Education and Training Foundation’s chief executive begins an interesting new chapter.

It doesn’t take a genius — much less a newbie to the sector — to recognise that 2014 will present a number of challenges to colleges, as some of the reforms become reality, and within an increasingly straitened climate.

At the same time, though, the next General Election will feel an awful lot closer the other side of New Year’s Eve, and we can hope that all three major parties decide to pursue bold, exciting policies.

More importantly, we can hope that they continue to develop those policies with reference to, or even better hand-in-hand with, the FE sector.


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