Colleges need certainty to deliver promise of social mobility

29 Nov 2019, 11:25

Welsh college principal, Mark Jones has a few requests to put to the new prime minister, and some leadership advice for the new incumbent at number 10

With responsibility for education in Wales devolved to the Welsh Assembly, colleagues in other areas of the UK may feel that the outcome of the Westminster election is likely to have only a minimal impact on Welsh education – but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Of all of the critical priorities for the new government the first one must be to resolve the impasse caused by the ongoing Brexit impasse which is, I’m sure, creating as much uncertainty and frustration amongst all governments as it is undoubtedly doing in Wales. Civil servants are having to plan for so many possible outcomes that at the current time that there just isn’t enough capacity to do anything else.

The impact of all of this is that, this year, I have more question marks along my various income ‘lines’ in the College budgets than I’ve ever had in all my 14 years as a College Principal. It is nearing December, and we are still awaiting confirmation and clarification of the funding for a number of key programmes that should have started in September.

This in turn means that any long-term planning continues to be almost meaningless. We just don’t know the constraints and direction that we will need to respond to.

But neither do I want the new government to rush through a bad deal just to ‘get Brexit done’, and I worry that a new administration may act in haste and leaving us all to repent at leisure, not allowing sufficient time to analyse the implications and the impact of any new deal in sufficient detail.  My strong advice to the new Prime Minister, drawn from 14 years of college leadership, is yes, to get on with it, but do so by bringing in other external advice, taking the time needed to make sure that it’s a deal that works for your whole constituency, for all your stakeholders. You would expect nothing less of us.

We need a framework that incentivises education providers to work together

Whoever gets the keys to number 10, the new education team will need to manage the long-outstanding issue of unnecessary competition in so many parts of the public education sector – most notably between FE colleges and schools at level 3, but also between colleges and universities at levels 4 and above. That competition often results in institutions putting themselves first rather than our learners, and results in advice and guidance that is often far from independent.

All this competition is underpinned by government funding methodologies that reward growth rather than outcomes, partnership working, or indeed any of the targets that the sectors are being asked to achieve. What we need is a framework that incentivises education providers to work together to grapple with some of the significant issues we are facing, rather than creating conditions that prioritise growth and the acquisition of market share.

Resuming normal government service and reforming unhelpful structures aside, the new government will have to follow through on the funding promises made to Further Education colleges. In the past couple of months, we have probably heard more positive comments on the key role colleges play – in skills development, in adult learning, in inclusion and social mobility – than we have heard in many years from all political parties. We can’t keep doing more with less.

All of the main parties have made positive commitments to begin addressing some of these issues. If followed through, they will have a major positive impact across so many areas of our society. It is no doubt encouraging to have this renewed attention given to the sector, but it will be important that we move beyond rhetoric and start to see tangible differences in the levels of support colleges receive. The country’s future cohesion and prosperity depend on it.

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