What we really learnt this week at the AoC conference is that our political class (currently) has no real answers for the FE funding and workforce skills conundrum.
First up was a business-like speech from the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson. Her address to college leaders was predictably upbeat. The fact she turned up at a post-16 event tells you that she cares enough to have a serious stab at what the opposition might do in government.
A lot of spade work has already been done by the party’s council of skills advisers, led by one of the most successful Labour cabinet ministers of his generation, Lord David Blunkett.
We heard a repeat of the need to flex the apprenticeship levy. The desire to replace competition with more collaboration at the local level. And the setting up of a new national body, Skills England.
The problem with the latter is that it came across in Philipson’s speech as the failed statist models of previous Labour governments. Of course, there is much to be said for getting social partners and key stakeholders around the table to develop a shared vision for better skills and increased productivity. That’s precisely what many of the world-leading systems do already.
But reheated versions of 1970s corporatism, at a time when there are already enough vested interests on the supply-side, is the last thing the country needs.
What is clear is that Labour has no comprehensive – systems level – set of proposals to grow skills or seriously improve workplace productivity. Instead, it offers a number of tactical interventions that give the impression of concerted action, when they fall far short of what is actually required.
Philipson couldn’t say if Labour would restore FE funding to 2010 levels. She did promise a “higher-trust” model of delivery, but then left hanging how such an approach might actually be achieved. For an opposition perhaps less than 18 months away from forming a government, there was no sense of a coherent plan.
Gillian Keegan arrived on the second day to tell the sector about her three “game changers” for further education.
I don’t know who briefs ministers on these set piece speeches these days, but the general ignorance in which they announce policy initiatives, as if this is the first time they have been tried, is genuinely alarming.
Take local skills improvement plans (LSIPs). They are no different in substance to the strategic area reviews (StAR) initiated by Charles Clarke when he was education secretary.
They mainly faltered because, in the end, the Learning and Skills Council had no real powers to close facilities and realign skills needs in terms of economic demand.
Fierce local opposition, combined with Whitehall inertia, scuppered most of these plans.
Institutes of Technology are another wheeze that have a long history in one form or another, going right back to 1985 when the Sunday Times first reported the setting up of 20 City Technology Colleges. These eventually merged into the academies programme pursued vigorously by both Labour and Conservative governments.
And finally, Keegan’s third game changer was improvements in the FE workforce.
Unsurprisingly, college principals will be left completely underwhelmed by this part of the speech. In a tight labour market with industry pay rates operating in a different universe to current teaching pay scales, only some major uplift in pay flexibilities are going to cut it.
This isn’t the first time a cabinet minister has piled on the hyperbole about ‘supporting’ the FE workforce.
In 2014, Matt Hancock (currently to be found mired in ITV’s I’m a Celeb, bushtucker trials) set out similar promises. Published in The Government’s Strategy to Support Workforce Excellence in Further Education, Hancock said: ‘We need to raise standards amongst all teaching staff to that of the best in the sector.’
Unfortunately, staff in the sector never get the chance to leave their day jobs, abandon their residents, to trouser a handsome £400,000 on the side.
For FE, the trial continues.