What would you tell the leaders of the major political parties about needed policy changes in further education? Tony Lewin has a few ideas . . .

Everyone who works in FE knows how vital the sector is. Colleges provide life-changing opportunities while powering the workforce of local industry. They educate and train 2.2 million learners, making an undeniable impact on individuals, employers and communities.

It is therefore heartening to see that discussion around the work of FE is becoming increasingly part of the mainstream political conversation. Last week, the three major political parties recognised the pivotal role that colleges play.

But many challenges remain. It will be important that the next government listens to colleges and tries to grapple with some long-standing issues.

One is the underfunding of provision for 16 to 19-year-olds. It is welcome the base rate for 16 to 19-year-olds has been raised to £4,188. However, this falls short of the recommendations of the “Raise the rate campaign” and the education select committee, who both called for an increase up to £4,760.

The crucial element is to ensure that the core element of vocational provision is appropriately funded. A total of 540 guided learning hours may be allocated to a programme, but when you break it down only about 360 hours are spent directly delivering the core component. A funding increase is undoubtedly essential, but it will be crucial that funding then flows to the element of programmes that are most directly related to the acquisition of technical skills.

Adult education and participation are also significant challenges. There are several reasons why people may not engage with adult education, but the cost should not be one of them. One significant barrier is that those already in receipt of a level 3 qualification cannot be funded to undertake another. Yet in places such as Newcastle there are opportunities to retrain to get the skills that local employers need — but people are reluctant to take on more personal debt. The government should allow them to undertake a second, fully funded qualification at level 3. The regional combined authorities give us a mechanism to pilot such an approach.

Apprenticeship and the levy continue to pose challenges for colleges. The principle and idea of the levy is still widely supported, but it is not working well. Large employers are underspending their levy, but there is still apparently not enough money to fund non-levy apprenticeships. The impact of the changes on smaller employers, who struggle with the 20 per cent off-the-job training rule, has been severe, and there has been a consistent decline in the number of apprenticeships starts since the policy has been introduced.

Colleges provide life-changing opportunities while powering the workforce of local industry

This is not to say that the current system should be scrapped, but the government should focus on ensuring that levy underspends can be reallocated on a demand-driven basis, that there is transparency in the price banding and standard approval process, and that longstanding issues with the endpoint assessment process are addressed. The levy can still be remedied, but with some minor adjustments.

Finally, there are recurring issues around English and maths. We know how demoralised many young people are at having to resit their English and maths GCSE, especially when they may be unlikely to achieve a grade 4 in the time available. We should look for alternatives that ensure learners are making progress and achieve a qualification that recognises their progress. The levels of English and maths skills vary in different occupations and we should have the flexibility to deliver qualifications that best reflect the needs of the individual.

So, despite these challenges, it does seem that FE is being taken increasingly seriously. Historically the government hasn’t shown a great interest in what FE does, but that might be changing. Politicians have realised that they can’t afford to ignore it. Let’s hope that this sentiment lasts up to the election and beyond.

This piece is part of a series of Collab Group election 2019 opinion pieces