2022 review: The stories that made the headlines this year

Exams blunders, ministerial roundabouts and financial fiascos: editor Shane Chowen rounds up 2022 and looks ahead at what's to come next year

Exams blunders, ministerial roundabouts and financial fiascos: editor Shane Chowen rounds up 2022 and looks ahead at what's to come next year

28 Dec 2022, 7:00

FE Week special front page

Looking back on the milestone moments of 2022, of course the one that will stick with most of us forever was the death of the Queen.

It was a Thursday when it happened, which is press day for FE Week. The whole team was together in the newsroom to make the finishing touches to the 397th edition of the paper. It was obvious something serious was happening, so we had some decisions to make.

How do we cover the death of the monarch in our paper? Should we? Should we even have a paper this week? What’s everyone else doing? Could any of our stories this week appear inappropriate or disrespectful given the circumstances? This was all pretty unprecedented after all.

Like everyone reporting on this momentous moment for our country, the most powerful coverage came from the stories and memories of people that had met the Queen. We found examples of Her Late Majesty visiting colleges going back to 1949 even before she was Queen.

Where, for many, the Queen’s reign represented a stability in our constitution, the same can’t be said for our political leaders in 2022.

We began the year with Alex Burghart in the skills minister post, having been appointed in September 2021. Perhaps Burghart’s biggest achievement was seeing the skills and post 16 education bill through parliament, which wasn’t straight forward thanks to the House of Lords.

Burghart was part of that first wave of junior ministerial resignations in July. He was then replaced by Andrea Jenkyns who was, sadly, better remembered for gaffs than graft. Her spat with West Midlands mayor Andy Street was one of my favourites, but of course everyone will remember the middle finger incident outside Number 10.

Jenkyns somehow survived the Johnson downfall while the rest of the DfE ministerial team was replaced around her.

The Truss premiership is one people with mortgages won’t forget in a hurry. But her subsequent downfall led to some better-known figures return to ministerial offices at DfE. Most notably, the former skills minister Gillian Keegan become the fifth education secretary of 2022, and the return of Robert Halfon to the skills brief.

All of that Westminster drama has been great for the world of journalism. We’ve never done so many ‘top 10 facts about new minister’ stories.

But it’s not been great for policy. There hasn’t been a big new idea, let along big new funding, from DfE for some time.

All this at a time when providers were re-doing their financial forecasts in light of rocketing inflation, interest rates and energy costs.

A lot of that uncertainty will carry forward in to 2023.

Reclassification of colleges to the public sector will bed in next year as new financial handbooks, guidance and approval processes are brought in to keep them compliant. Capital plans, already strained by rising cost of materials, other borrowing, salaries and severance packages will all need DfE sign off.

And rising costs with static funding could see more investors turn their back on the training market, as we saw this year with System Group.

Industrial action in our sector will only, I expect, escalate as unions in schools and universities, and elsewhere of course, escalate theirs.

There will be more devolution in 2023, putting even more pressure on DfE to keep up with funding increases being brought in by some of the mayors (see London and West Midlands).

And what of apprenticeships? A review of the levy has been looming like the sword of Damocles for some time now, and IfATE keep promising to increase funding rates but keep failing to deliver.

Whatever comes, FE Week will continue to keep decision-makers on their toes and keeping you, our readers, up to date on what’s going on.

On behalf of the FE Week team – a happy new year to all our readers and subscribers.

January

We reported on the first college to lose its ‘outstanding’ grade after Ofsted finally removed the exemption for grade 1s

February

The levelling up white paper came out with plans for new “elite” sixth forms … which didn’t go down well with college bosses

March

Level 2 and below qualifications were in the headlines this month as the government named the qualifications that will lose funding as part of their reform programme

April

Stats out this month revealed that the drop-out rate for apprenticeships was 41.3 per cent in 2019/20 and 41.2 per cent in 2020/21. DfE blamed Covid and more challenging standards. Commentators said this was evidence of the need for reform.

May

In May, training providers rejoiced at the replacement of the controversial 20 per cent off the job training rule for apprenticeships with a new 6hr/week baseline

June

England’s largest training provider was downgraded from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’ in June. Inspectors said the firm was focussed on financial performance and starts over quality.

July

In July we broke the news that the firm that took over Learndirect had suddenly filed for insolvency after failing to win government contracts. Also, Michelle Donelan served 35 hours as educations secretary. James Cleverly took over.

August

News in August was dominated by results delays – thousands of BTEC and Cambridge Tech students were let down triggering investigations by the regulators.

September

First year health and science T Level students had their grades changed after regulators found “serious issues” with exams, it was announced in September. Also, Kit Malthouse becomes the fourth education secretary of 2022.

October

In October, DfE was finally forced to reveal that £2 billion in unspent apprenticeship levy funding had been returned to Treasury since 2017. Also, Gillian Keegan becomes the fifth education secretary of 2022.

November

Colleges were reclassified as public sector bodies in November and immediately had new rules to follow around borrowing, senior pay controls and how to spend to their reserves.

December

And this month, after years of low starts, the government scrapped the national traineeships programme. Providers leaders said this was a blow for social mobility.

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