As we head into the last six months before one of the most unpredictable general elections in the last century, it is clear that FE and skills are going to be on the agenda nationally. But is that a blessing in disguise?
We have already been through a party conference season in which politicians of all political persuasions fell into that age-old trap of knowing the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.
Apprenticeships, considered by our sector to be an essential and specialist form of vocational education, have been reduced to a makeshift solution to youth unemployment, and an ill-advised race to pledge more and more apprenticeship starts has been promised from all sides.
But while it seems everyone wants to talk about apprenticeships, our leaders are still uncomfortable speaking about funding for FE, or rather, the lack of it.
Without the comfort and security of the funding ringfence enjoyed by schools, FE has been left out in the cold by government cuts and frequent changes in policy, which have placed additional administrative burdens on colleges and left lecturers, college leaders and providers even more stretched, and their learners at risk of a sub-standard education.
In the run-up to a general election, all politicians get desperate. Desperate to score points over each other, desperate to win votes by talking the public’s language, and it is our job to make sure the pressure is on them to speak FE’s language too.
It would also be nice for our politicians to publish manifesto pledges which may not necessarily make the news at 10, but are formed from on an understanding and appreciation of the sector’s needs, requirements and aspirations.
The last five years may have seemed tough with the tightening of purse strings in FE. But what is clear is that the next government, no matter what political colour, will have to make deeper and more aggressive cuts. It will make the previous five years seem like the ‘good old days.’
In conducting our manifesto survey, FE Week has sought to unite our amazing sector in one voice, so we can tell those who seek public office and those who elect them what their priorities must be for vocational education and skills policy.
The results will not surprise many in the FE sector, but they make one thing very clear: we cannot go on as we are.
The FE sector trains some of the most vulnerable young people in England. Young people who have been failed by the schools system, hung out to dry by government and left to a life of working for minimum wage, or as one of those most talked-about statistics, those who are Neet – not in education, employment or training.
The FE sector gives those people a chance.
Our sector also gives adults, who may have been failed by a school system many decades ago, the change to come back into education and improve their prospects, and to quote at least two government ministers, there is nothing “Mickey Mouse” about qualifications which get anyone who wants to learn back into the classroom.
The FE sector also gives those people a chance.
But far from simply being a dumping ground for the leftovers of a school system which rewards only the academic achievements of learners and recognises only grades and not potential, FE also trains some of the brightest and the best England has to offer.
More and more young people are choosing vocational pathways into highly-skilled fields such as aviation, aerospace, engineering and manufacturing, into fields like accountancy and law, where apprenticeships were once the norm, but now university is trumpeted by schools and careers advisers as the only route.But these options are not being presented to enough young people as they go through school. This is simply wrong and must change. It is a failing of our education system, which must be addressed, but will take a generation.
Through the results of this survey and the subsequent readers’ manifesto, the FE sector can speak with one voice, loudly enough to ensure above anything else that we cannot be ignored as the race to Number 10 reaches its conclusion.
The phrase ‘sooner rather than later’ has never been more pertinent.
Managing director of Lsect Ltd, publisher of FE Week