There is broad agreement that the FE sector needs radical reform, yet little consensus on the detail. But what if that was all the agreement we really needed, asks Ann Limb

There’s nothing like ‘yesterday’s men’ (or women) appearing in the media to offer comment on the issues of the day from their own retrospective leadership positions. Politics has no shortage of them, and their interventions tend at best to be informative but ineffectual, and at worst ignored or ridiculed.

For my part, it is now almost 20 years since I served as a College Principal. I have never been far from the sector, and have remained an ardent advocate for colleges and their critical role in local communities throughout, but I have no intention of becoming a retrospective leader myself. It seems to me that there are plenty of fresh thinkers and ideas out there, and the biggest risk the sector faces is in failing to listen to them.

As the Independent Commission on the College of the Future rightly states in its interim report, there are “seismic shifts happening across the UK”. Keeping up is a challenge and the reality is that change in the FE sector must be equally volcanic in response.

Commissions and enquiries are all well and good, but in the end they often reflect the biases of their members, who tend to be more experienced, and can be more resistant to change. The FE sector needs to be less introspective in its current deliberations and truly embrace the widespread societal and political changes that are sweeping the country if it is going to be adaptable enough to meet the challenges they present.

Change in the FE sector must be volcanic

I imagine that Dominic Cummings and his new crop of fresh-thinking ‘weirdos’ could instinctively offer a bolder reforming vision than any sector-led crystal ball gazing. The time is right, the mood music resonates, and history teaches us that the Tories ‘get’ FE. Compare the incorporation of colleges under John Major with the Blair administration’s failure to implement one iota of David Blunkett’s Learning Age green paper or Helena Kennedy’s Learning Works report.

It is under Conservative governments that FE has been reformed and for the next 5 years we have a majority government that is prepared to turn things on their heads. Now is the opportunity for the FE sector to be on the front foot to shape an alternative future.

However, the alternative is not that FE continues to try to be all things to all people or worse, as the Commission’s interim report suggests, spends time searching for its place the ‘skills eco system’. Colleges of the future should build on their contemporary uniqueness. FE Colleges are the local route to life changing transformation for significant numbers of people and organisations.

Five themes have emerged from the Commission’s consultations so far, and as I filled in their online survey I began to lose the will to live after the third. Consistency and comprehensiveness give way to repetition and humdrum. In the end, what else needs consideration beyond purpose, practices and people?

Sir Christopher Ball coined the phrase ‘resources follow coherent purpose’. If exciting and imaginative but workable solutions for the future of FE are unearthed, the matters covered in the other themes – funding and a coherent skills ecosystem – will naturally follow.

In summary, this means ensuring that the college of the future is acknowledged as the provider of essential services to people and employers in every local community. The focus has to be local and the services must be integrated with all the other local services needed and used by local people. 

Governments and opposition parties who want to demonstrate their ‘staying in touch with the people’ credentials need to remember that voters experience policy locally.  The most reforming idea that could come from Boris Johnson’s radical entourage is that Westminster doesn’t have all the answers. Can the Commission possibly come to such a conclusion? And will the college of the future be ready for such freedom?