Dr Ann Limb presents five reasons to be cheerful about skills, devolution and localism over the next five years.

I’ve worked with — and for — Conservative, Labour, and Coalition governments. It is from this perspective that I predict the next five to 10 years could be the most exciting, challenging, and potentially the most creative and productive, for FE colleges and independent learning providers (ILPs).

So here’s why. Firstly, the long campaign to raise the status of technical, vocational and professional training is succeeding, epitomized in part by the cross party political consensus on the importance, value and prioritisation of the apprenticeship route to skills acquisition and employment.

There will undoubtedly be significant issues about achieving an arbitrarily determined numerical manifesto pledge and the sector will be judged on how it responds to this. Nonetheless there are opportunities to be seized here — a chance to use renewed interest in apprenticeships to position providers positively in a reconfigured system. Secondly, the sector’s leadership is mature, confident, collaborative and outward looking — and more joined-up than ever.

The new government has quickly demonstrated its unequivocal ideological penchant for the devolution of power and budgets to local level

National organisations such as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, Association of Colleges, the 157 Group and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. I experience a much greater willingness of late for the leadership of the major national bodies to work together, and in partnership with employers and Leps, where there is common ground.

Thirdly, the new government has quickly demonstrated its unequivocal ideological penchant for the devolution of power and budgets to local level — with attendant accountability for growth and economic development resting largely on the shoulders of local authorities working with their private sectors partners in Leps, employer membership bodies, and trades unions. This presents a golden opportunity for skills providers to capitalise on their established pre-eminence with their local constituents, employers and businesses.

Any lack of national profile generally for post-16 sector skills providers when compared to schools and universities, is offset by the overwhelmingly positive regard in which FE colleges and ILPs are held in their local communities.

Fourthly, devolution and localism offer a significant strategic opportunity for the post 14-education system to be re-shaped for the long term — with regard to funding, operational delivery, and local business engagement. It remains to be seen whether government will be bold in its thinking on this or whether it will continue to reconfigure the sector through a prolonged series of salami-sliced funding cuts, like those recently announced.

I was a college principal in 1992 when the last Conservative majority government demonstrated the vision, courage and muscle to lead the sector into incorporation. As the sector comes of age, I urge current Ministers to be as reforming as their political forebears.

Finally — and this is something the sector should take pride in — vocational skills are no longer the forgotten third child of the educational system. FE colleges and ILPs alike have shaken off their ‘Billy no-mates’ image and can demonstrate a growing track record of success. ILPs and FE colleges have friends, admirers, and advocates at all levels — locally, nationally and internationally.