Much talk of reform, but plenty left unsaid in conference season

Further education featured prominently among the policy proposals outlined by the three main political parties at the recent conferences. However, Lynne Sedgmore believes nothing was said on a number of key sector issues.

The annual conference season has come to an end and aspects of FE featured strongly on their agendas.

We heard about free school meals from the Liberal Democrats and “earn or learn” policies from the Tories.

But on other aspects, there was a worrying silence.

As the political world gears up for the next election, it is important to reflect on where the last few weeks really leave us.

The 157 Group has published its own manifesto for FE and skills, calling for a shared vision, more stability in policy and funding and greater equity across the provider spectrum.

It seems clear, from comparisons with other education and training systems, that these three are prerequisites for success, and we trust that others across the sector will feel able to back our call.

There are signs we might see a less turbulent environment.

As the political world gears up for the next election, it is important to reflect on where the last few weeks really leave us”

Conference discussions seem to reflect a growing consensus around some key policy themes — that traineeships and apprenticeships are the basis of successful vocational education and direct funding of employers will engage more of them in the system.

It is also agreed English and maths are essential for everyone.

There is some comfort to be taken in the implication that a bedding down of current reforms will be given space by all three main parties.

We would suggest, however, there is something missing.

We have long argued colleges play a pivotal role in the skills system, yet none of the emerging manifestos recognise that. We are clear that full-time vocational education is valuable for many, but it is largely ignored.

We think it is important for employers to be engaged on a strategic level, but they shouldn’t be bogged down in the detail of funding.

Colleges are responding to policy initiatives with gusto — for example by ensuring university technical colleges, studio schools and the like are successful, so they can serve as the engine rooms of employer ownership pilots and work hard to make a success of advanced learning loans.

However, this vital role — of the college as a valuable public asset — must be better acknowledged.

It is also revealing to look at what was not discussed during the season.

There was no challenge from any corner to the school reform agenda, nor any dissent from the push to give local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) more authority at local level.

There were no hints of a rethink on FE loans and no suspicion at all that structure of any of the government bodies for our sector (the split between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, for instance) would be reviewed.

So, given all of that, I see an opportunity for colleges to be more vocal about how they are leading the way.

The 157 Group will continue to champion colleges for their strategic leadership within localities and their contribution to economic growth.

We will continue to press for true equity in the way all providers of post-14 education and training are held accountable, and, indeed, for that system to be increasingly sector-driven and owned.

With all the major parties agreed on some key policy elements, colleges will want to demonstrate their ability to lead the skills agenda by showing practically how to implement them.

Headline-grabbing announcements, whether on free meals or the possible loss of benefits or apprenticeships in exchange for foreign skilled workers, are not what is critical. Good working relationships with LEPs for example are.

Lynne Sedgmore,
executive director of the 157 Group

 

 



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3 Comments

  1. ‘The 157 Group has published its own manifesto for FE and skills, calling for a shared vision, more stability in policy and funding and greater equity across the provider spectrum.

    It seems clear, from comparisons with other education and training systems, that these three are prerequisites for success, and we trust that others across the sector will feel able to back our call’.

    Thanks for an interesting article Lynne. A question though. Why does the 157 Group feel the need to publish its own ‘manifesto for FE and Skills’ and is the membership base of 157 Group not to rather narrow to be able to justifiably claim to be able to speak on behalf of ‘fe and skills’, if by that you mean the FE sector?

    Would we not all be better and stronger on matters of broad policy and influencing, to make our contributions within the Association of Colleges, and ensure that the sector is seen to be speaking with one voice.

    It’s now 8 years since Foster reported and in that time the AoC has become an effective sector organisation, no doubt stimulated by the early contributions of the 157 Group.

    On the substance of your article I think that another avalanche of change impacting the sector is about to break, namely Apprenticeship Reform and the conference season may have represented the lull before the storm.

    Similarly Ed Miliband will have had his reshuffle in mind and so held back on FE statements, in the knowledge that a new Shadow team was about to be appointed. As for the Lib Dems, who can tell!

    • Lynne sedgmore

      Hi. Mike, a fair challenge but one I have discussed with AoC who were happy for us to go ahead with our own Manifesto. A mature sector is one that can hold several voices, and we are working closely with the AoC on key policy messages that we share on behalf of all colleges. We have reflected these messages in our Manifesto so there is nothing that detracts from or divides the sector in any way. this is the second 157 Manifesto, we were the first in the college member ship bodies to produce one four years ago. Perhaps the next step is a joint manifesto of all college membership groups, very open to that but we would not presume to lead such an initiative. Always open to challenge and constructive dialogue. All my best Lynne

  2. Thanks Lynne. I take the point re maturity but also have a bell ringing in my mind around ‘broad church’. YIt’s more intuitive than evidence based but I feel that on clear sector voice would be a more powerful expression of common interest than several. That does assume however that there remains ‘a sector’. Grateful for the reply though and best wihes to you too.

    M