AoC conference: brewing optimism amid a sector finding its voice

The FE genie isn’t going back in the bottle whatever the election outcome, says Rebecca Durber, so let’s fight clever for our sector

The FE genie isn’t going back in the bottle whatever the election outcome, says Rebecca Durber, so let’s fight clever for our sector

17 Nov 2023, 5:00

The AoC annual conference was back in Birmingham this week. The event is always the main highlight in the FE calendar, with thousands descending to the ICC to hear from senior politicians, sector leaders, students and other inspiring speakers, as well as getting the chance to share best practice and network with colleagues.  
 
It is safe to say that the mood at the conference this year was a stark contrast to the last. Against the backdrop of qualification reform, more than a decade of funding neglect, workforce challenges and much more, the 2022 autumn statement was understandably a bitter pill for the sector to swallow. Less than 24 hours after education secretary, Gillian Keegan took to the stage, we found out that the school sector had been awarded £2.3 billion, with no new funding available for colleges.

This year, however, it feels as though our fortunes have changed. In his opening remarks, AoC chief executive, David Hughes cheekily half-joked that we are now having to say “and universities” instead of “and colleges”.   
 
Rather than seen as moaners, colleges are now being recognised by decision makers as the solution to the nation’s challenges. And while it’s still not enough, the funding is starting to follow.  

In July, we found that colleges had been awarded £185 million through the 16-19 study programme budget, with a further £285 million pledged for next year too to help tackle pay disparity.

In the prime minister’s Conservative party conference speech, he announced a further £600 million would be made available over the next two years to improve teacher recruitment and retention in key subject shortage areas, to increase teaching time by 15 per cent and to improve quality and attainment.  

Over to the opposition. Shadow skills minister, Seema Malhotra used her AoC conference speech this week to reaffirm Labour’s commitment to colleges with pledges to introduce technical excellence colleges, reform the apprenticeship levy into a growth and skills levy and launch a new body, Skills England to oversee a national effort on meeting skills leads. This hasn’t happened by accident. It’s on the back of significant campaigning from the AoC and our members.  

We head into the most critical election of a generation

Colleges are fighting clever, fighting better and fighting together. And it is paying off. We need to continue channelling this newfound optimism into action as we head into the most critical election of a generation. The next year is where we can make a real difference for students, staff, businesses and communities.  

Alongside an impressive main stage line up, we had some brilliant break-out sessions on the key issues impacting our colleges.  

Despite a crowded field, the session that I chaired on local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) on Wednesday morning was packed out, with well over 100 attending to join the discussion on how we can make them deliver. It felt timely, not least with the announcement of a local skills investment fund last week.  

Regardless of the outcome of the next election, we know the direction of travel around devolution and employer engagement in skills is only going to continue at pace. LSIPs are a major part of this space, and it is very early days, so it’s unsurprising that there is lots of variation in practice across the country. 

AoC have been conducting research on LSIPs, speaking to college leaders, MCAs, chambers of commerce and employer representative bodies to evaluate their experience, learn about the challenges and the green shoots of best practice. The conversations have been eye-opening: colleges want genuine and mature partnerships with the other organisations involved and they are frustrated by the lack of national strategy. The role of universities still seems unclear, and there’s feeling that LSIPs sit outside of MCA strategies and the wider funding system.  

The good thing is, there’s broad consensus and commitment to making LSIPs work from college leaders, employer representatives, devolved government and regional stakeholders. Let’s not give into the temptation of scrapping LSIPs, only to have to replace them with yet another local skills plan.

And while we’re at it, let’s make LSIPs the plan – instead of one of far too many. 

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