As I write what my calendar tells me is my last FE Insider of 2013/14, the words ‘what a year it has been’ feel inadequate.
A highly experienced colleague said recently that he’d never known a period quite like the one FE seems to be going through at the moment.
I began this calendar year with an attempted poem criticising the government’s 17.5 per cent cut to education funding rate for 18-year-olds.
While we didn’t ‘win’ that battle in the conventional sense (the government didn’t reverse the cut), mitigation was offered, but more importantly, the sector showed its fighting spirit in a way I hadn’t seen before.
It felt hugely exciting to lots of us — FE colleges rising up together to make their voices heard in new and effective ways — and, if nothing else, it has raised awareness of our fantastic work in the minds of many MPs and other influential figures.
Alongside the damage wreaked by that cut, other money matters have given the sector plenty to think about, from proposals for changing apprenticeship funding to the cull of shorter adult qualifications.
Research has been published by representative bodies, campaign groups and others, bringing FE into a much more debated and public place than perhaps before
A platform for airing concerns and opinions on such policy issues has been provided by FE Week and — as with our response to the 18-year-old cut — this has been of real value. So, in my opinion, has been the steady increase in attention paid to colleges by the Parliamentary select committees.
For the second year running, Ofsted’s chief inspector took his FE and skills director with him to his annual appearance before the Education Committee, where a robust discussion on careers guidance was just one aspect of an interesting session.
Down the corridor the BIS Committee has looked at adult literacy and numeracy, while the MPs charged with scrutinising science, technology, engineering and maths policy have made science A-levels a key aspect of their programme.
Elsewhere, a plethora of research has been published by representative bodies, campaign groups and others, bringing FE into a much more debated and public place than perhaps before. This can only be a good thing, particularly when our funds are being decimated.
There is still a very long way to go before FE has the attention it needs, particularly from politicians. I was fascinated that during the recent European election campaigns the emotive subject of education barely seemed to come up.
Regardless of our individual feelings about the EU, there’s no denying that British education — including colleges and universities — receive considerable funds from it, and that the EU also facilitates other programmes advantageous to young people, everything from employability projects to orchestras. And yet despite this major contribution — which like everything has its positive and negative sides — education and skills hardly seemed to crop up.
So what happens next? There is an appetite from some politicians at least to explore FE further, and to make some bold and positive statements about our sector.
My challenge to colleges would be to work out what we really want from manifestos and to contribute before it’s too late. FE Week and others have got the ball rolling on this, and for starters many of us might be tempted to agree with the 157 Group that the most useful thing would be a period of calm — a moratorium on policy changes after what feels like a deluge over recent months.
What I’m sure of (and it might not make me popular) is that we’re in no position to whinge if we don’t contribute proactively at this stage.
I am still hopeful that at least one party might have the courage to promise a reversal of the 18-year-old cut which is not only financially damaging, but the one which shows the grossest misunderstanding of what our sector is about.
But whatever we’re after, we should head into party conference territory after the summer sure of our goals, and ready to build on the unity and fighting spirit we found this year to try and make them come true.