The outgoing chair of the AoC reflects on the past six years of FE policy and practice

I was honoured to become chair of the Association of Colleges in January 2013. Like most people who work in our colleges, to me further education is a vocation and a passion.

The role that colleges play; the difference they make; the value they add is something that I have been privileged to be a part of for most of my career. So as I come to the end of my six year term as chair of AoC, it’s interesting to reflect on the experience of colleges during that period.

In the first decade of the 21st century, colleges had been generally successful in securing government funding to meet student and employer needs. However the financial crash and subsequent austerity measures meant that FE, like most public services, has faced continued hardship.

Decisions by government to cut departmental funding and then not to protect FE budgets have been devastating. In 2013 the 16-18 budget constituted two thirds of DfE’s “non-protected” budget and it has taken the brunt of education cuts. The raising of the participation age to 18 in 2015 saw no consideration given to the inequity of funding for this age group. Similarly the lack of protection for 19+ budgets has had severe consequences. Taken as a whole and over the six years, the cumulative impact has been a fall in funding that now calls into question the sustainability of the sector.

And while the financial neglect has been marked and consistent, it has not meant government has reduced the burdens. The surge of reforms has continued unabated.

Colleges have tackled new maths and English funding conditions that created enormous staffing, curriculum and logistical demands. They have dealt with substantial qualification reforms; the introduction of the levy and major reforms to apprenticeships; delegation of SEND budgets to local authorities; area reviews; new common inspection frameworks; new intervention regimes; and are facing imminently the devolution of AEB budgets; a new insolvency regime; and the introduction of T-levels.

This list is not exhaustive, and the AoC has worked with members throughout to mitigate the impact of austerity, influence policy and moderate some more severe proposals, and support members to deal with the changing environment.

This has been the reality of the college experience during the last six years. They have risen to the challenges: trying to secure and manage the funds necessary for investment and expenditure to meet local economic, business and student needs whilst balancing the books. The margin between success and failure can be very small, but getting it wrong is perilous.

Colleges have risen to the challenges

Yet despite the undoubted hardships and challenges faced by colleges, they have continued to get on with the job of doing everything they can within their powers – and resources – to meet the needs of their students and communities. The staff, leaders and governors in colleges do an amazing and increasingly difficult job, and they get it right far more often than not. It is one of the reasons I am so proud to be part of this sector and am optimistic about the future.

But it’s not only colleges’ resilience, fortitude, and passion for their mission to improve lives through learning that gives me cause for optimism. I sense that the value colleges add to our economy and society is at last being more widely recognised and understood. Every community needs a college, and their role will become ever more vital as we face the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution. As a civilised and mature democracy we cannot entertain the injustice or the consequences of failing to invest in the talents, skills and well-being of all our citizens.

Colleges are a community mainstay; they are necessary support to cope and thrive as we navigate our way through a future landscape that will be full of unknown hazards and opportunities. We must now continue to work energetically and collectively to make a new reality, where investment in our colleges is at the very heart of our plans to be a successful nation.