The end of 2016 will feel like a much bigger occasion than other years. It’s been a relentless rollercoaster of emotions.
So much so that I now hesitate before checking my phone when a news alert goes off, wondering what 2016 could possibly throw at us next. I’ve also seen people blaming their own clumsy mishaps on the calendar. “I knocked my coffee over and it went all over my interview papers. Typical 2016.”
Without a doubt, this year has been disruptive culturally and politically – even in the world of FE and skills. The skills minister Robert Halfon, and his shadow Gordon Marsden, will be finishing the year seeing through the Technical and Further Education Bill which should by then have made its way through the House of Commons.
To recap, the TFE bill enacts technical education and training proposals in the Skills Plan for defined occupational groups; provides a broad remit for the Institute for Apprenticeships (and adds ‘and Technical Education’ to its title); introduces an insolvency regime as an exceptional last resort for financially struggling colleges; and ensures that devolved holders of the adult education budget will share information with the government.
For the last two weeks, the bill has been in committee stage in the House of Commons, when a group of MPs gather evidence and debate each line. They have until December 6 to agree the wording of the bill to pass back to the whole House of Commons for third reading before it goes to the House of Lords.
Fourteen witnesses have provided evidence to the committee in person, including me. Eleven written evidence submissions have been submitted; 10 from organisations and one from a college governor. For a crude comparison, 30 witnesses were asked to provide evidence and more than 60 submissions of written evidence were received by the bill committee for the current Higher Education and Research Bill also making its way through parliament.
One area that has been of interest in discussions about the bill so far is the role of the new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.
The Skills Plan gives the Institute several important roles: overseeing training routes within occupational groupings; keeping standards and qualifications up to date; and enshrining it as a sort-of-quasi-regulator for quality in the sector.
However, the Labour Party, AoC and others have highlighted concerns about timescales and the capacity of the institute to deliver its substantial new responsibilities.
Without a doubt, this year has been disruptive
The bill committee heard from Peter Lauener, shadow chief executive of the new Institute, that it will have only 60 members of staff to begin with, despite the TFE bill adding new technical education responsibilities to its existing role with apprenticeships.
A lot of the evidence to the committee points to the importance of proper engagement with employers, learners and providers in developing technical education routes and apprenticeship standards, yet significant concern remains over whether the new institute will be adequately resourced to do this properly.
Several evidence submissions have highlighted points that are in the Skills Plan but not in the bill. City and Guilds, NCFE and LSE highlight the lack of provisions over exclusive licensing arrangements for technical education qualifications, which was proposed in the Skills Plan.
The Learning and Work Institute has meanwhile said the new institute should have a remit to promote access to apprenticeships for under-represented and disadvantaged students, similar to the role that the Office for Students will have in higher education.
While sector campaigners may be disappointed in the government’s apparent lack of interest in changing the TFE bill at this stage, this is normal behaviour. In debates, the minister has publicly recognised the issues raised and has been broadly positive so far about taking action in ways other than through primary legislation.
That said, the sector doesn’t often have the opportunity to push for good quality legislation, so it’s really important to continue raising issues and ideas to improve the TFE bill as it progresses through the House of Lords in the New Year.
Shane Chowen is head of policy and public affairs at the Learning and Work Institute and a governor at Westminster Kingsway College