WorldSkills UK national finals 2023

Welcome to this special souvenir supplement bringing you the full results and insights from the 2023 WorldSkills UK national finals in Greater Manchester.

The finals showcase the pinnacle of technical skills among UK students and apprentices, but there’s a lot more to skills competitions than winning medals.

Find out why Greater Manchester was the perfect host city region for this year’s finals, how learning from abroad is raising technical training standards at home, and get the very latest on how WorldSkills UK’s Centre of Excellence programme is transforming teacher CPD.

AoC 16-18 recruitment survey ‘reveals major concerns among college leaders’

Half of colleges have seen a drop in enrolment figures, with the blame partly placed on the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

A survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) of 182 colleges shows 49 per cent are reporting falling numbers of 16-19-year-olds, compared to last year.

It also shows a national drop of 0.1 per cent, the first time in 15 to 20 years the figure has fallen, with 46 colleges reporting a dip between five to 15 per cent.

Colleges believe unaffordable transport, combined with the abolition of the EMA and increased competition for student numbers among school and college sixth forms, have been the main causes for a decline.

The survey is further evidence supporting the findings from two surveys – conducted by Lsect – and published in FE Week. The first showed that 105 colleges forecast an initial total shortfall of 20,319 students for this academic year.

Key AoC survey findings:

  • Half of the 182 colleges that responded are seeing a drop in 16-19 students, with 46 colleges reporting a significant dip of between five per cent to 15 per cent
  • Of those reporting a decline, colleges say the end of EMAs for students in the first year of the course, competition from other providers, lack of affordable transport and cuts in funding per student were the main factors
  • A decline in Level 1 courses (pre-GSCE and basic skills) was reported by 41 per cent of respondents
  • 51 per cent of colleges said that their student numbers have increased or remained stable
  • 60 per cent of colleges reported a drop in transport spending by their local authority
  • Over half of all colleges are ‘topping up’ Government bursary funding with their own contributions and the same proportion are spending more on subsidising transport this year than last
  • 79 per cent of colleges agreeing that free meals in colleges for 16-18 year olds (currently not available, unlike in schools) would encourage participation.

Fiona McMillan, president of the AoC and principal of Bridgwater College in Somerset, said that at her own college EMA provided students with about £1,000 per year. Now, there is only £152 per year available for students.

She said: “We are all aware that funding is tight. But these young people are our future and we must consider our investment in them.

“We would all regret a situation where young people miss out and then become the so-called lost generation.”

Ms McMillan said the new 16-19 bursary, which replaced the EMA, is “better than nothing” but in terms of what it provides, “there is a big gap”. To cope, her college – like many others – has subsidised the cost.

She is also concerned colleges will miss out on vital funding, adding: “We are paid by our student numbers. So it’s an important issue for us.”

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said some of the changes could be due to demographics – with a drop of 40,000 in the 16-18 age group. He added: “It is a complex picture. The decline in college enrolment by students on Level 1 courses may be partially explained by improvements in school teaching.

“What is clear is a significant number of member colleges are concerned that financial constraints are preventing students from pursuing preferred courses at their institution of choice and there is a risk of vulnerable groups becoming disengaged from education.”

Andy Forbes, principal at Hertford Regional College, said they are “about five per cent down” on 16-18 enrolment from last year.

He said: “We’re now projecting a figure of just under 2,600 against our target of 2,719.

“We have experienced a particular decline in Level 2 enrolments and at the furthest reaches of our catchment area, which stretches quite a long way.”

Mr Forbes believes there are two factors to blame, adding: “The withdrawal of EMA and the cost of transport from the two ends of our catchment.

“We were not helped by late arrival of concrete information on what funding we had to compensate for loss of EMA and how we could use that funding, which made it difficult to put financial support in place for students and publicise them effectively.”

He also said colleges need to work harder to get the message across about the “exceptional quality of provision” they offer, in the face of “growing competition from schools” expanding sixth forms by offering vocational courses.

He added: “The decline of independent careers advice isn’t helping young people make good choices at 16 and we in FE are going to have to be a lot more active in ensuring school pupils and parents are made positively aware of the alternatives to staying on at school.”

However, the Department for Education spokesman (DfE) said there are “record numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds” in education or training.

He said: “There has been a massive increase in apprenticeships for anyone over 16 to learn a specific trade – 360,000 places in all available in more than 200 careers.

“And we are strengthening vocational education so young people will have high-quality courses open to them which are valued by employers.”

The spokesman also said: “We are targeting financial support at students who need it most to get through their studies – through the new £180m a year bursary fund, with further transitional support available for those students who were already drawing the EMA.”

Gordon Marsden, Shadow FE and Skills Minister, said the “alarming figures” show the impact of the government’s policy to scrap EMA. He said: “The government has left FE colleges facing a double whammy at a time of real economic uncertainty.

“Not only are college finances jeopardised by falling enrolment numbers, but they face the strain of having to try and address the post EMA funding gap, putting extra administrative burdens on them at a time where they claim to be setting them free.

“The government needs to get a grip urgently with a strategy that will help, rather than hinder, FE colleges in addressing young people’s employment and skills needs.”

AoC said they will repeat the enrolment survey in September 2012.

Click here to download the study and here to download the AoC press release.

Strikes: Minimum service levels will ‘inflame’ tensions

New proposals for minimum service level (MSL) laws in colleges when staff are on strike would further “inflame” tensions between colleges and unions, leaders have told FE Week.

The Department for Education launched a consultation last week with proposals that would allow colleges to require staff to work during strikes so priority groups of students can still attend classes.

One college principal told FE Week the plans could wreck carefully managed relationships between unions and colleges, which have been under strain in recent years due to industrial disputes over low pay and workload.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan first floated MSL last month and opened talks with unions for a voluntary agreement that would avoid legislation.

However, “not enough progress” was made, according to DfE, so powers under The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 will now be used to bring in regulations to limit disruption in education on strike days.

The department said that ten days of strike action by the University and College Union (UCU) and nine days by the National Education Union (NEU) took place in further education in the last academic year.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of UCU, said the proposals were a “transparent political ploy designed to create a dividing line in advance of the general election”.

“There is no call for minimum service levels from within the sector. We are disappointed at the bad faith the government has shown in pressing forward with this consultation on curtailing our members’ right to strike. The engagement up to now has been a sham and this consultation is full of loaded questions,” Grady added.

Further education and sixth form colleges will be in scope of the new rules, as well as the specially designated institutions. Independent training providers and specialist post-16 institutions are not in scope as they are deemed at low risk of strike disruption.

Keegan said: “Whilst I know many schools and colleges worked really hard to keep children and young people in face-to-face education during strikes, we must make sure that approach is applied in every school [sic], in every area of country.”

Colleges choose minimum staffing levels

Under the proposals, college leaders can choose to issue a work notice ahead of a strike which would list the staff needed to deliver a minimum level of service.

Staff that can be named in a work notice can include leadership, teachers and lecturers, teaching assistants, safeguarding leads, administration staff and other non-teaching staff.

Janet Smith, principal and chief executive at Nottingham College, which until recently had regular strike action, said issuing work notices would be “inflammatory”.

“I think it would be very difficult to do and it would be inflammatory. We work very, very hard to build a good relationship with our staff and with our unions … and it’s partly through fostering and nurturing those relationships, even if we are looking at things through a different lens at times, that we actually head off strike action. I think that’s more effective than trying to strong-arm people into work.”

The regulations will not tell college leaders how many staff they must direct to work during strikes, but they will specify which groups of students should be protected from disruption.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, questioned how college leaders will be held to account under the new rules.

He said: “It’s one thing to say that college leaders have the freedom to choose whether to issue a work notice, but they are also told that they are responsible for ensuring the delivery of a minimum level of service. If leaders choose not to issue a work notice for a particular reason, but then fail in their duty to deliver, how will they be held liable?

“At least this consultation gives employers, who have to manage the tension between a right to strike and the imperative to deliver an education without disruption, and who have not previously been invited to contribute to the debate, an opportunity, at last, to express their views.”

Priority student groups

The department is proposing that young people defined as vulnerable, students due to take exams and assessments (excluding apprenticeship end-point assessments), and children of critical workers be prioritised.

Students that are looked after by their local authority, are aged 25 and under with an
EHCP, have a child protection or child in need plan, and/or receive special educational needs support will count as vulnerable under the MSL regulations.

Also on the priority list would be students due to take exams or formal assessments in the same academic year strike action takes place. This includes assessments for GCSEs, A levels, T Levels and other vocational and technical qualifications.

Apprentices, however, will not be included in this priority cohort. This is because strike action has a “limited risk” to the delivery of end-point assessments.

The final group of students to be prioritised under MSL rules will be children of critical workers, such as health and social care workers, transport workers and certain education roles.

But for colleges to prioritise the attendance of those students, it is proposed that both parents or guardians must be critical workers, or that a single parent in a household is a critical worker.

For students not prioritised for attendance on a strike day, the DfE said it would “expect every effort” to provide teaching remotely.

The consultation closes on January 30, 2024.

Students force college to ‘suspend’ ties with Israel-linked aerospace firm

A college in Luton has “suspended” all activities with a defence firm over its involvement in the Israel and Palestine conflict following pressure from students.

Luton Sixth Form College (LSFC), which teaches over 3,000 16 to 18-year-olds, released a statement this week announcing it would cut ties with Leonardo, an Italian engineering firm that manufactures aircraft parts with a global presence in 26 countries.

The move is thought to be the first of its kind by a college in England in response to the humanitarian crisis in the occupied territory of Gaza.

The college said the “extent of its relationship” with Leonardo extends to the company’s attendance at careers and jobs fairs and providing work experience for STEM students.

“We are currently reviewing our position with it in conjunction with Luton Borough Council and other schools and colleges,” the statement said. “All further activities with Leonardo will be suspended until further notice.”

Numerous protests at Leonardo factories have taken place over the years across the UK, most recently at its sites in Edinburgh and Southampton over the company’s links to the Israeli military.

A college student group accused the college of providing a “limited account” of Leonardo’s involvement with LSFC students.

“Many students have [been] sent to engage with Leonardo through the ‘Industrial Cadets Gold Project’, as well as the ‘Robot Wars’ and ‘Rampaging Chariots’ initiative,” the student group said responding to the college statement on Wednesday.

Leonardo has had a presence in Luton since 2003 and employs around 1,000 people. The company has been a big proponent of skills education. According to its early career opportunities brochure, it has a “strategic partnership” with colleges and universities for work and summer placements and hires engineering apprentices, with off-the-job training provided by local colleges.

Leonardo also hosts a STEM-based ‘Rampaging Chariots’ tournament in the
area. Luton Sixth Form College students have participated in the competition since at least 2012. LSFC students have also previously been mentored by Leonardo engineers, according to local reports.

The move by the college follows calls from the student body there, who led a protest drawing hundreds of students on November 17, the same day that school pupils across the country walked out to protest the bombing of Gaza.

Last week, the student council sent an open letter to the college leadership team demanding it cut its partnership with Leonardo “immediately” and allow students to fundraise humanitarian aid for Gazans.

The college responded that it has organised fundraising events, including hosting a charity event on December 15, collaborating with local organisations such as Luton Foodbank, Discover Islam, and Human Appeal.

“As a college community, our hearts are heavy as we witness the suffering of innocent people and we stand together, united in our commitment to peace, compassion, and understanding.

“With that in mind, we have planned a number of initiatives including a Fundraising Week and Luton Peace Celebration Day in December which has been communicated to all students and staff.”

Luton Sixth Form College and Leonardo did not respond to FE Week’s request for comment.

Ofsted surrenders in secret legal battle over ‘fatally flawed’ inspection

A major manufacturing body has overturned an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgment following a year-long legal battle that the inspectorate was forced to back down from, FE Week can reveal.

Make UK is now set to be judged as ‘good’ following a reinspection just months after it was told it would be handed the lowest possible judgment, which would have closed its training division and led to around 120 job losses.

The firm suppressed the grade four after forking out over half a million pounds defending itself through the courts. It argued that the inspection, which made allegedly unsubstantiated claims of “misogynistic” behaviour, was “fatally flawed”.

FE Week understands that Ofsted pulled out of a judicial review hearing scheduled for last month at the eleventh hour, and at least one inspector has been suspended.

This is the second time in the space of a year that Ofsted has rowed back on an ‘inadequate’ judgment for a private training provider only to reinspect the company and upgrade it to ‘good’.

Make UK has called for “urgent reform” to Ofsted’s inspection model in light of the saga.

A spokesperson for the company said: “We have had no choice but to robustly challenge the outcome of a sub-standard Ofsted assessment that was fundamentally inaccurate and based on a fatally flawed inspection.

“Our experiences suggest that the Ofsted model for assessing private training providers is not fit for purpose and requires urgent reform. Our challenge to that report appears close to a successful conclusion and we look forward to saying more shortly.”

Ofsted declined to comment.

Make UK, formerly known as the Engineering Employers’ Federation, is an influential organisation that represents manufacturers across the country. It is chaired by Lord Hutton of Furness and was name-checked twice in last week’s autumn statement speech by chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

The company trains around 1,200 engineering and manufacturing apprentices at any one time. Its last published Ofsted inspection result was a ‘good’ in 2016.

Ofsted went back into the provider in January this year and dealt ‘inadequate’ ratings across the board a month later. The provider was accused of delaying student progress due to a lack of qualified staff, poorly run courses such as failing to provide relevant materials for welding students, and failing to offer a programme that was tailored to students’ existing abilities.

The most significant allegation made by the inspection team was around safeguarding, namely that there was “misogynistic behaviour”. Make UK refuted this in the strongest possible terms and said the highly damaging claim was “unsupported by any evidence”.

A judgment to this effect would have likely led to the Education and Skills Funding Agency terminating Make UK’s contract to deliver apprenticeship training.

The company quickly launched legal action and was successful in securing a judicial review that prevented Ofsted from publishing the report, having argued that Ofsted’s criticisms were irrational, unevidenced, and based on insufficient sample sizes.

Make UK was also granted an anonymity order whereby its identity could not initially be revealed during the proceedings.

While the company geared up for a showdown in the High Court, Ofsted conducted a follow-up mandatory monitoring visit in August and identified positive provision.

The watchdog then decided, off its own back, to conduct a full reinspection in October ahead of the court hearing with a completely different inspection team to the January visit.

FE Week understands new but yet undisclosed evidence came to light around this period that made it clear to the inspectorate it would not win the case in court. The reinspection resulted in an overall ‘good’ grade and none of the issues identified in the January inspection were found.

The report is expected to be published in December.

DfE’s spending on T Level public awareness efforts revealed

The Department for Education has spent less than 1 per cent of its T Levels budget on publicity efforts, FE Week can reveal amid mounting concerns over a lack of awareness of the flagship qualifications.

A Freedom of Information request shows that £11.7 million has been used for PR and communications campaigns since 2018.

The DfE will have pumped £1.75 billion into the rollout of T Levels by the end of the 2024-25 financial year, with funding available for 100,000 starts by that point.

However, between 2020/21 and 2022/23 just 16,400 students were recruited onto a T Level. It means a marketing cost per T Level student of around £650.

Various reports have raised concerns about continuing low levels of awareness of the new technical courses among young people, parents, employers and even schools.

Most colleges have missed their enrolment targets since T Levels launched in 2020, and several have even scrapped some T Level courses due to low demand.

Ofqual reported in August 2023 that up to 43 per cent of students had no understanding of the qualifications. And over the summer a highly critical Ofsted review slammed promotion efforts after finding that a portion of T Level students who were recruited felt “misled”. 

The watchdog’s deputy director for FE and skills, Paul Joyce, told FE Week he was struck by the lack of public awareness of what a T Level is and what the course involves at this point in the rollout.

Sector leaders told FE Week that the government has “significantly underestimated” the difficulty of launching an entirely new and complex qualification in a landscape where well-established qualifications already exist.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Despite the millions spent on raising awareness of T Levels, it is worrying that providers are concerned the T Level ‘brand’ is not well known and that the qualifications are not understood by parents or school staff.”

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, added: “In their current guise, T Levels are a high quality but minority product. Attempting to promote them as a mass-market product was therefore always going to be an uphill struggle.”

The marketing figures shared with FE Week showed that for the first three financial years from 2018, over £7 million was spent on specific T Level advertising by DfE.

But from January 2022, the department ditched the individual marketing campaigns in favour of a more joined-up approach, spending approximately £4.5 million on the promotion of all technical education options.

These include the Get the Jump campaign, which sought to raise awareness of all education and training pathways and the Join the Skills Revolution campaign, which aims for more employer involvement in programmes such as apprenticeships, Multiply numeracy courses and T Levels.

The campaigns are handled by agencies contracted by DfE. Last October, M&C Saatchi was handed an up to £9.5 million contract to handle the government’s Skills for Life campaign, receiving over £1.5 million per year for four years from 2022/23.

The DfE also works with the Gatsby Foundation, which was set up by Lord David Sainsbury who also led the government’s technical education review in 2016, which paved the way for T Levels. His foundation launched a campaign in 2022 led by The Apprentice star Tim Campbell to target parents, carers and guardians of 11 to 16-year-olds.

ABS announcement ‘undercuts’ T Levels investment

Experts told FE Week that the government could have spent more funding on promoting T Levels instead of choosing to replace the qualification with the Advanced British Standard (ABS), as proposed by prime minister Rishi Sunak in October.

Ben Verinder, marketing expert and managing director of Chalkstream, told FE Week: “Launching a new national flagship qualification like T Levels requires considerable investment in order to raise awareness among the target market because – as we saw with Diplomas – they need a critical mass to succeed.

“So, spending millions to introduce T Levels to young people and their families is, on the face of it, a wise and necessary investment. What is not so wise is undercutting that investment by announcing the future demise of the qualification to national media.”

Verinder added: “We carry qualifications with us throughout our lives. If we are told that at some point they will be devalued, we won’t invest in them, no matter how big the marketing budget.”

Barton said the move by Number 10 to announce the ABS just three years after T Levels launched was “completely incoherent”.

“It will further confuse students and parents and teachers, making it more difficult to recruit students to these courses, and undermining the marketing work that has taken place,” he added.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We have invested over £11 million in national communications and marketing campaigns promoting T Levels, and these will be continued into at least 2025. 

“This academic year we also provided all T Level providers with up to £10,000 to invest in extra careers guidance. Our network of over 400 T Level ambassadors are also helping to boost awareness among employers, parents and students. 

“These efforts have resulted in a 36 percentage points increase in T Level awareness among students in years 9 to 11 in the last two years, with nearly 70 per cent of year 11 pupils also now aware.”

Halfon ‘encouraged’ by apprenticeship trends since the levy 

The skills minister has said he is “encouraged” by the growing take-up of higher and degree apprenticeships, as new data shows their share of the market has almost tripled since the launch of the levy.

Robert Halfon is also “pleased” that two-thirds of apprenticeship starts are now at levels 2 and 3 – though this is now the lowest proportion on record.

Final full-year apprenticeship figures have now been published, and confirmed a 3.5 per cent drop in overall starts from 2021/22 to 2022/23, as reported by FE Week last month.

The data release also included a section showing the trends in apprenticeship take-up since the launch of the levy in 2017. Overall, starts across all levels fell by 10 per cent between 2017/18 and 2022/23, moving from 375,760 to 337,140.

In 2017/18, the proportion of level 2 apprenticeship starts sat at 43 per cent, while level 3 was 44 per cent, and higher levels had just 13 per cent.

By 2022/23, however, soaring higher level starts accounted for 33 per cent of all apprenticeship starts, whereas level 2 starts shrunk to 23 per cent. The proportion of level 3 starts remained unchanged at 44 per cent.

The numbers of higher-level apprenticeship starts (112,930) are now at the highest on record and level 2 starts (76,280) the lowest.

Shift driven mainly by level 6 and 7s

The rise in degree-level apprenticeships is the main driver for the trend.

Level 6 apprenticeships have quadrupled from 6,370 in 2017/18 to 25,030 in 2022/23.

And starts at level 7 have risen by five-fold, from 4,500 to 21,760 over that period.

FE Week understands discussions are ongoing between Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for Education about potentially restricting the amount of levy funds that can be spent on degree-level apprenticeships amid affordability concerns.

Young people squeezed out even further

Starts for young people have also continued to decline since the launch of the levy.

In 2017/18, those aged 16 to 18 accounted for 28 per cent of all starts. This fell to 23 per cent in 2022/23.

Meanwhile, starts for those aged 25 and over made up 41 per cent of starts in 2017/18, which grew to 48 per cent in 2022/23.

The proportion of starts aged 19 to 24 has stayed stable over that time, shifting only slightly from 30 per cent to 29 per cent.

Figures ‘please’ minister

Responding to the data, Robert Halfon, the DfE’s minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, said: “I’m pleased that these figures show that under 25s continue to make up over half of all apprenticeship starts, and two-thirds of starts are also at Level 2 and 3.

“I’m also encouraged that take up of higher and degree apprenticeships has grown, demonstrating the demand for these opportunities is high. 

“Degree apprenticeships are a brilliant alternative to doing a traditional three-year degree and support employers to tap into the higher-level skills they need. We are investing £40 million over the next two years so we can provide even more degree level opportunities.

“We are continuing to promote apprenticeships to young people through our Apprenticeships Support and Knowledge programme, backed by £3.2 million a year. You can now also search for apprenticeships on the UCAS Hub and from 2024, students will then be able to apply for apprenticeships through UCAS alongside an undergraduate degree application.”

You’re never too young (or too old) for honest self-appraisal

When I was asked to attend a ‘strengths’ course as part of my participation in the Skills and Education Group’s emerging leaders programme, I have to admit I was more than a little sceptical. At the age of 32, I felt sure I knew my strengths and weaknesses and that no amount of additional probing or analysis was necessary. How wrong I was.

The course was devised and run by Hannah Miller from coaching company, Sidekick. Using the world-renowned CliftonStrengths assessment, it was focused on personality and preferences. We were taught how to really get to know ourselves: what we do best, and how and why we contribute and show up in the way we do. The theory is that the more we understand these aspects of ourselves, the better equipped we are to make the right professional decisions and to build a career that really works for us.

It made me realise that I’m at my best when I’m working directly with students; listening, engaging, and helping them to navigate their way through college life – and, ultimately, their next steps. As Nottingham College’s Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire collaborative outreach partnership (DANCOP) project manager I was already working to raise the aspirations of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and to help them realise their potential, but I wanted to get back to that one-to-one, direct support.

As a result of the course, I switched to becoming a pastoral tutor in our A Level department. Just a few weeks into my new role, I already know I made the right move. And the experience has got me thinking: imagine if I’d understood myself this well when I was younger.

Every day I work with learners who don’t fully understand their strengths and don’t know how to navigate or overcome their weaknesses. So I contacted Hannah and discovered that she already had a version of the course for young people. We collaborated to devise a bespoke, face-to-face version that we could run over two days at Nottingham College. We called it Purpose Pursuit, Young Adult Edition.

We wanted the programme to develop attendees’ confidence and focus on their strengths. We also wanted to address the notion that career and next-step support can sometimes be quite generic or leave young people ill-equipped.

Imagine if I’d understood myself this well when I was younger

By liaising with the college’s pastoral staff and the DANCOP programme, we approached 25 learners to take part in the first of our courses. We focused on students who were either progressing onto their second year of A Levels, needed help in considering their next steps, or were at risk of not completing their course due to issues around confidence.

For two days, we worked with those learners to focus on their moments of brilliance and to view them as clues to their real purpose. We looked at talking confidently about who you are and what you bring to a situation, and we worked on identifying transferable skills, experiences and behaviours.

We also worked to identify weaknesses and figure out how to navigate what might be holding these learners back in order to remove barriers to change. Doing all of this enabled us to tease out realistic five- and ten-year goals for every person in the room – along with a plan on how to achieve them.

The course was a huge success, but one moment really stood out for me. One particular learner, who hadn’t lived in the UK for long, was struggling with their identity and with what they saw as an uncertain future. This manifested in a fear of talking to other people. By the end of the two days they were joining in a group discussion. This was a big win.

So we are now planning to run the course again at the end of this month for another 25 learners. I cannot wait to see what impact this will have on the next cohort of learners. And meanwhile, we will also be catching up with our last cohort to monitor and support the longer-term impact of taking part in the programme.

One thing is certain: it has already been transformative for me.

8 reasons we shouldn’t use the term ‘provider’ – and what we could say instead

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, a debate is brewing over the term ‘provider’ and its application to esteemed institutions such as colleges, institutes for adult learning and local authority adult community education services. Advocates for change argue that the use of this term diminishes the significance of their work and fails to garner the attention and recognition they rightly deserve.

For my part, it seems that the term ‘provider’ could mean anything. It’s demeaning, disrespectful and minimises the great work our sector does to support individuals and their communities.

Not convinced? Here are eight reasons to jettison the word from our educational vocabulary, and my pitch for what to replace it with.

1. Narrow focus

The term ‘provider’ suggests a narrow focus on delivering services, potentially overshadowing the broader educational goals of these institutions. Learning organisations aspire to more than just service delivery; their missions often include fostering critical thinking, creativity and personal growth. Often, they support learners, families and whole communities well beyond the strict remit of providing courses.

2. Incomplete representation

Learning institutions are not just service providers; they engage in curriculum development, research, policy advocacy and community engagement. The term ‘provider’ falls short in representing the multifaceted role they play in society, potentially diminishing their standing and role in fostering economic gain.

3. Depersonalisation of education

Critics argue that the term ‘provider’ depersonalises the educational process, reducing education, mentoring and teaching to mere mechanical processes. This oversimplification neglects the intricate and nurturing relationships that form the foundation of effective learning.

4. Commodification of learning

Referring to education as a ‘service’ delivered by a ‘provider’ emphasises a transactional relationship  that belongs in the register of commerce rather than education. It’s language that undermines the intrinsic value of learning, turning it into a mere commodity, and the relational nature of education.

5. Overemphasis on delivery

The use of ‘provider’ can shift the focus towards the delivery of content, sidelining crucial aspects of the learning experience. Learning is not solely about what is provided but how it is absorbed, understood and applied.

6. Downplaying diversity

‘Provider’ oversimplifies the diverse nature of education and learning, failing to capture the variety of approaches, methods and philosophies employed by different institutions – and indeed within institutions.

7. Quantity over quality

Perhaps inadvertently, the term ‘provider’ with all its connotations prioritises quantity and profitability over educational quality and ethical considerations. This is a key concern among critics of the commercialisation of education, and one its proponents have consistently argued should be guarded against.

8. Incommensurate with our standing

The department for education and its agencies extensively use the term ‘provider’, while simultaneously talking up FE’s parity with other parts of the education sector and its importance to economic prosperity. For all the reasons above, the language and aspiration are essentially incompatible. The term is disrespectful, hinders the sector’s desired standing and diverts attention from learning organisations’ overarching objectives and values.

Embracing ‘learning organisations’

It would great if agencies of government could use institutions’ true names: college, institute for adult learning or local authority adult service. If that’s not possible then we advocate a change and propose adopting the term ‘learning organisations’ as a more encompassing and respectful alternative. This shift would better reflect the multifaceted nature of these institutions and highlight their crucial role in shaping society.

As the debate continues, the education sector grapples with the challenge of finding a term that truly encapsulates the essence of these vital institutions. Of course, there are other more pressing priorities, but one thing I am convinced of is that the choice of language goes beyond mere semantics.

How we are referred to – and how we refer to ourselves – reflects our values, our priorities and our worth. That makes this debate an empowering one for the sector. But more than that, it could turn out to be the key that unlocks many of our other challenges.

How colleges can foster safe engagement with the Israel/Palestine conflict

The current conflict between Israel and Gaza means it is incumbent on college leaders to familiarise themselves with the legal framework around issues of discrimination, extremism and freedom of speech as they impact campus life.

Colleges have a statutory duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure freedom of speech within the law for staff, students and visiting speakers. This is in addition to their duty as public authorities to act in a manner compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights, including the qualified right to freedom of expression.

Neither of these duties were mentioned in the education secretary’s letter to colleges, which focused on duties to prevent harm and ensure safety. This may be because the letter was also addressed to schools, which operate under a different statutory context. Rather than being restricted by concepts of harm and safety, free speech obligations permit colleges to intervene where speech is unlawful, including by taking disciplinary action where proportionate.

Words and context will always be highly relevant, but there are a range of ways in which campus speech could potentially be unlawful.

Terrorism offences

Hamas is a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. Students and staff may be at risk of committing a range offences by speaking in support of it. These include inviting support for Hamas or expressing supportive opinions regardless of whether these might encourage others to support it. Arranging meetings and protests that appear to support Hamas or its activities is also unlawful. Other offences include glorifying terrorist events that have already occurred.

Colleges may be at risk of breaching their Prevent duty if they don’t take steps to ensure such offences do not occur. The Prevent guidance extends to exposure to non-violent extremism, so colleges may be required to act where speech strays close to support for Hamas or violence more generally.

Incitement and harassment

Speech about the conflict could amount to a public order offence such as incitement to racial or religious hatred or causing harassment, alarm and distress. Similarly, online speech could amount to a communications offence.

Colleges can also intervene where speech constitutes unlawful harassment under the Equality Act.  This is unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic (such as race or religion) that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.

Where conduct is intended to harass by targeting individuals or groups, then the decision to take action should be straightforward. More problematic is where protest or debate is claimed to have the effect of harassing individuals.

In these cases, the law applies a three-point test:

  1. Whether the individual experienced the conduct as harassment
  2. The circumstances in which the conduct occurred. For example, it will be relevant that the speech relates to matters of public interest and is taking place in a setting where the aim is to advance knowledge
  3. Whether it is reasonable for the conduct to be perceived as harassment given the fundamental importance of freedom of expression – a right that extends to ideas that disturb or offend.

Fostering relations

Where colleges are aware of campus tensions, the public sector equality duty to foster good relations may require them to intervene proactively to ensure all groups feel supported and able to participate effectively in campus life. Colleges may want to consider issuing guidance on freedom of speech, emphasising their duty to uphold it while highlighting the risks of criminal offences or unlawful harassment. 

Speech which transgresses the guidance should be investigated quickly and proportionate action taken where appropriate to ensure the parameters of lawful free speech are respected. Staff and students who feel marginalised or vilified should be offered appropriate support. The aim should be to enable students and staff to discuss matters of public interest freely and robustly without exposing themselves, others or the college to the consequences of unlawful speech.

Given the complexity of the legal position, colleges may understandably be concerned that they will face complaints and potentially legal or regulatory challenge whatever they do. The key will be to demonstrate that decisions were made reasonably, taking all the evidence and responsibilities into account.

Reclassification one year on: Capital, control and confusion

This time a year ago, we discovered that colleges were, after all, in the public sector and had been since 1993. The office for national statistics (ONS) made this declaration, citing an international statistical standard introduced eight years earlier, in 2014.

ONS is a slow and methodical organisation. It looked again at laws passed by Parliament in the 1990s and, because the statistical rules had changed, the ONS national accounts committee changed its mind. No longer private sector, it said. Colleges have been public sector all along.

Unlike ONS, the department for education moved quickly. Within minutes of the ONS announcement, DfE ministers presented a statement to parliament and the education and skills funding agency (ESFA)’s chief executive sent a letter to college principals. Following treasury orders, they introduced a series of new controls on college decisions.

With immediate effect, colleges were ordered to ask for approval on issues like taking out loans, offering financial support to other organisations via guarantees and making voluntary severance payments worth more than three months of salary.

The DfE gave governing bodies a six-month notice period for new approval rules for offering high pay to senior staff, but all other controls started from 29 November 2022. The government only acts this fast when there’s a crisis or when they need to pre-empt bad behaviour. It was an over-reaction and not a good start to a new era. 

So, while the rest of the world may remember last November as the ChatGPT launch date, a group of college leaders will remember it as the time when the government created hassle, doubt and unproductive paperwork. In a few cases, this almost derailed long-planned building projects. As the weeks and months passed, DfE and ESFA officials sorted things out, created new forms to fill and invented a process for colleges to borrow from the government instead of banks.

A year on, things have settled down and reclassification is old news.

The rules are in place. They are an irritant but they’re now quite familiar. Discussions in leadership teams have reverted to other challenges.

The rules are in place – an irritant, but quite familiar

The talk at this November’s AoC conference was about novel and contentious technology rather than tedious accounting rules. But college public sector status is now a fact of life, and that won’t be changing soon. ONS made an all-encompassing judgement about colleges and it would require a big reform to change their mind.

There isn’t the political appetite now to comprehensively deregulate colleges and take apart the intervention apparatus piece by piece. With £6 billion in public spending going to the sector and a high profile for skills, it’s hard to think of a scenario in which a future government would make this choice. This leaves the college-DfE relationship in an unsatisfactory state.

Having promised financial freedom in the past, DfE is now the main lender for colleges alongside its roles as majority funder, curriculum promoter, occasional capital project manager, charitable regulator and intervention agent.

Different teams of officials have different tasks but there’s a risk of conflicting messages. College leadership teams retain the most important duties: organising staff, managing courses, talking to employers and addressing student needs. But they do so with an increased list of government instructions.

Meanwhile, colleges now find themselves back in the public sector just at the point when top-down treasury financial control is greatest.

This leaves colleges less certain than ever about future capital funding – not just how much they’ll have but how it will come. At a time when student numbers are rising, there is growing pressure to provide skills for the economy. Where investment is needed to modernise buildings for new uses and new sources of energy, this is an obvious worry.

In the end, independence is a state of mind. Whatever their classification or accounting status, colleges have a social purpose.

The new controls are a responsibility and reclassification has been a distraction but if we let it get in the way of all the things we need to do, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.