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.

VIDEO: FE and skills leaders react to party manifestos

Further education leaders have expressed their “alarm” at the lack of detail on education funding in the main party political manifestos.

Closing the end of ‘manifestos’ week, leaders of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, adult education body Holex and the Association of Colleges told FE Week editor Shane Chowen what they thought about the pledges and promises, as well as what was missing.

See below for a recording of the discussion from this morning’s free webinar sponsored by NCFE.

The leaders unpicked Labour’s plans to transform the apprenticeship levy and analysed what would make Labour’s proposed new skills body, Skills England, a success.

The Conservatives’ planned apprenticeships boost was broadly welcomed, but there was consensus on the need for the party to do more to improve access for young people.

Visit FE Week’s dedicated general election webpage for the latest news, analysis and opinion.

DfE Covid lockdown party may have gone on past 1am

Gavin Williamson’s much-criticised Covid lockdown Christmas party at the Department for Education’s headquarters could have gone on until past 1am, “deeply concerning” new documents suggest.

An official inquiry into Covid get-togethers within the government said the “festive drinks” on December 10, 2020, lasted for about an hour until 6pm. Then-education secretary Williamson provided wine and mince pies for as many as 30 attendees.

London was in tier 2 lockdown at the time. Gatherings of two or more people indoors were banned unless of an exception such as a gathering being “reasonably necessary for work purposes”.

FE Week’s sister publication Schools Week asked the Cabinet Office for data on the number of times staff swiped out of the department’s security barriers that night, and the seven previous nights.

It showed that staff swiped out of Sanctuary Buildings 34 times after 10pm on the night of the party. Eight of those were after 1am.

The next highest was nine swipes on Thursday 9, and then five on Thursday 3. Four of the days had zero swipes in that time period.

‘Deeply concerning’

A Liberal Democrats spokesperson said the findings were “deeply concerning and urgent clarification is needed on the extent of this party, which took place while teachers, parents and children were still suffering from constant disruption and uncertainty”.

Acland-Hood

The DfE said this week the gathering lasted an hour before “individuals dispersed and/or left the building”.

Susan Acland-Hood, the DfE permanent secretary, had told MPs in 2021 that about “two dozen” people attended.

But the DfE said swipes do not record individuals leaving. Staff can leave for food or a cigarette, for instance, and then return. They would also include 24-hour cleaning and security staff.

Late access to the building was commonplace during Covid too, the department said.

Asked whether the 2022 inquiry into lockdown parties led by Sue Gray was aware of this data, the DfE said the team had access to records deemed relevant and were able to speak to members of staff.

The Metropolitan Police did not investigate the party. The DfE repeated that the gathering to “thank staff for their efforts … should never have happened”.

Williamson is one of the few big-name Conservative MPs standing at the general election and set to keep their seat. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The government originally refused to release the swipe card data, arguing that it would be a risk to national security and could “enable a hostile actor to determine patterns of movement by staff in and out of the building”.

But the Information Commissioner’s Office backed our appeal. They said the likelihood of anyone being able to determine patterns of movement today are “so remote as to be irrelevant”.

Election 2024: ‘Conspiracy of silence’ over unprotected public service cuts

Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” on billions of pounds of cuts in unprotected public services, such as further education, leading economists have warned.   

Both parties, with the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, published their manifestos this week providing some insight into their plans if they win the keys to Downing Street.   

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer continue to face tough questions about their tax and spending plans in the face of a tottering economy, rising national debt and low growth.   

Both parties have costed additional spending commitments by bringing in money for something specific, such as Labour’s plans to fund 6,500 school teachers from VAT on private schools, or scrapping things, such as the Conservatives’ plan to fund extra apprenticeships by shutting “low-quality” degrees.  

Economists have warned further education is among several public services likely to suffer cuts because of expensive commitments made on protected services such as the NHS and defence and green investment.   

The Resolution Foundation last week said £19 billion of cuts was needed from unprotected budgets for any new government to meet national debt targets by the end of the next parliament. One of shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ “fiscal rules” is for debt to fall over that time.   

Responding to Labour’s manifesto, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) director Paul Johnson said: “Like the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, Labour continues in a conspiracy of silence on the difficulties they would face.  

“On current forecasts, and especially with an extra £17.5 billion borrowing over five years to fund [Labour’s] green prosperity plan, this leaves literally no room – within the fiscal rule Labour signed up – for any more spending than planned by the current government. And those plans do involve cuts both to investment spending and to spending on unprotected public services.”  

Where will the money come from? 

This will offer little hope for colleges and training providers looking for increases to per-student funding without, as Johnson puts it, “surprise growth” in the economy.  

Bee Boileau, research economist at the IFS, singled out further education, prisons and courts as unprotected services “likely to be seriously squeezed, facing real-terms cuts that look inconsistent with [Labour] manifesto’s stated ambitions in these areas”.  

At the last budget, Learning and Work Institute chief executive Stephen Evans predicted the adult skills budget’s share of the unprotected spending cuts would be about £380 million, on top of the £1 billion already cut from the sector since 2010.   

Whoever becomes the next education secretary will have to make tough decisions on what they will spend their money on.   

Funding from falling school pupil numbers would most likely be earmarked to school-related spending, rather than be redirected to post-16 because it is a protected service.  

Below-inflation funding increases in further education funding have already contributed to a rising pay gap between school and college teachers of about £9,000, with an even larger gap between teachers in schools and independent training providers.   

David Hughes, chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said the pay gap was “unacceptable”.  

“We want to see the next government seriously commit to investing in FE, its students and its workforce. If Labour does form the next government, I look forward to working with them to eradicate this gap, and reverse the chronic underfunding suffered by the sector.” 

Meanwhile the apprenticeship levy is set to raise a record annual £4.6 billion by the end of the next parliament, but neither party has confirmed how much of that would be spent on training, and how much would be redirected elsewhere.  

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ election manifesto, also published this week, called for the next government to spend everything it raises through the levy on apprenticeships and skills. Its chief executive, Ben Rowland, said the sector “still lacks sufficient funding and ideas to improve [apprenticeship] achievement rates, support small and medium-sized employers, and address the decline of young people taking on an apprenticeship”.  

But Labour will change the levy so funding can be spent on non-apprenticeship training, potentially freeing up funding for courses previously funded by the DfE’s other budgets. The shadow education secretary recently announced that 3 per cent of levy funds would pay for 150,000 pre-apprenticeship traineeship courses.   

Non-apprenticeship levy funds could also be used to fund Labour’s “youth guarantee” of a job, apprenticeship or training for every 18 to 21-year-old. This wasn’t costed in the party’s manifesto.   

Johnson added: “Delivering genuine change will almost certainly require putting actual resources on the table. And Labour’s manifesto offers no indication that there is a plan for where the money would come from.” 

Students ‘live the dream’ in SFCA art exhibition 2024

Nearly 200 pieces of artwork by budding student artists go on display today as the annual Sixth Form Colleges Association online exhibition goes live.

Scores of students in fine art, graphic design, photography and games design from sixth form colleges across the country have had their work selected for this year’s exhibition themed ‘living the dream’.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “Sixth form colleges represent a vital supply pipeline of the professional artists of the future, and this is their platform to stimulate our thinking about the wonders of the world we live in, to remind us of why the arts matter, to showcase their skills, and to convey their views and feelings.”

Students were given free rein to interpret this year’s theme as they saw fit, resulting in a variety of subjects including people, events, places, feelings and more abstract expressions. 

This year’s entrants took to a range of mediums to produce their artwork. Examples featured the use of sculpture, collage, photography, digital art as well as more traditional use of paints, prints and inks.

Watkin said the exhibition highlighted the importance of developing creative skills in helping young people develop in to successful citizens and professionals regardless of their chosen career path.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the arts and advance their place in the curriculum, and their importance in our lives. It is also a time to recognise excellence in sixth form colleges and the talent, creativity and sensitivity of the students,” he added.

“It is imperative that we keep the arts in education secure and flourishing. If young people are to make a truly valuable contribution to society, even if they are to be successful scientists, engineers, doctors and technicians, they need to develop their creative skills, their artistic sensitivities and their ability to communicate and interact with others.”

The full online exhibition can be viewed on the Sixth Form Colleges Association’s website here.

AoC publishes ‘blueprint’ for new skills quango

A “clear blueprint” for a new quango to oversee post-16 education and skills strategy has been released today. 

Independent research commissioned by the Association of Colleges (AoC) has fleshed out a plan for a new arms-length body that is hoped to shift England away from overly centralised and employer-led skills policymaking. 

Shared exclusively with FE Week, the AoC paper has been published a day after Labour confirmed its policy to create “Skills England” – a body that would “bring together partners with a drive to give coherence and direction to our skills landscape, not replicate existing functions”. 

The association claims its report, by former UK Commission for Employment and Skills deputy director Lesley Giles who now runs research company Work Advance, is a “clear blueprint” for what such a new skills body should look like, and how it would work “in practice”.  

It challenges the current government’s employer-led approach, which the association said “has not been successful”.  

However, aside from confirming the body would be funded by the government, there were no costings, how many employees it would need or how existing quangos would be impacted. 

Treasury opposition costings estimate Labour’s Skills England at more than £10 million a year with 100 staff. Giles told FE Week her vision for such a body would not exceed those estimations. 

Multi-department sponsorship

The report makes clear that the Department for Education’s analytical and research team, the Unit for Future Skills, would be subsumed into the new body. 

It would operate in addition to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the Office for Students (OfS) – organisations that separately oversee the strategy and policy of tertiary education. 

But instead of being led solely by the DfE, the new body would be a non-departmental body sponsored by different departments. 

The proposed “lead” department would be either the Department for Business because of its “oversight role on economic and industrial policy”, or the Cabinet Office, which has “already had a role running cross-departmental cabinet meetings on skills policy and programmes”. 

Strategy co-ordination and ramped up research

Giles’ report said there was “limited evidence” that the OfS, ESFA and IfATE “ever meet” to consider skills issues collectively from a system-wide perspective. 

This “separates” HE, FE and technical education, which “limits collaboration between providers in the sectors”. This system also “increasingly controls the levels of authority, autonomy and resources of local institutions, including around partnership working”. 

While the DfE had launched a programme of skills reforms for the current system through white papers, such as Skills for Jobs in 2021, there was “no single vision, or indeed collective ambition, capturing all government skills activities as a whole”, she said. 

The new body would aim to fill that gap and “enable a whole of government approach” to scrutinise England’s portfolio of skills initiatives, including by “allocating distinct roles” of policy innovation, design and delivery to the various agencies. 

It would also “empower” designated providers and FE colleges to have scope to adapt and flex courses and apprenticeships to reflect local demands. 

Experts would be responsible for independently assessing the “value” of different programmes and qualifications, and for proposing continued funding for those in demand or scrapping those that weren’t. 

The body would have its own research budget and establish a “strategic skills research and labour market analysis programme” to provide “authoritative” evidence on skills and workforce trends. 

It would develop a “national framework” for directing data collection, co-ordinating analysis and undertaking its own research directly. The oversight body would also “support and review” different partners’ work, such as local skills improvement plans and mayoral combined authorities, to produce overarching local and sectoral skills assessments. 

‘Serious redesign’

A key function would be setting long-term strategic goals that involved an “overarching framework for action” which could deal with “megatrends” that have an affect globally, such as climate change and pandemics.  

The oversight body would work with funding bodies to “consider how the national, sectoral and local priorities are reflected in funding allocations supporting investments in different skills programmes within the post-16 skills system”. 

It would also review the future role of “macro policy” incentives such as the apprenticeship levy and propose alternatives. 

Giles said: “Our current system in England is too centralised. A new oversight body can provide the basis not only to work with partners to better anticipate and understand evolving employment and skills challenges, but to innovate and find effective solutions to address them.” 

AoC chief executive David Hughes added: “We have been clear that the disjointed and confused governance of post-16 education and skills needs a serious redesign. 

“For the past 14 years, the government has tried to put employers in the driving seat, but … this has not been successful. Instead, we need a new national skills body which, at its core, is a social partnership that brings together the ambitions, needs, talents, understanding and resources of all stakeholders, including employers.”

Andy Westwood, professor of public policy, government and business at the University of Manchester, agreed that a skills oversight body, supporting stronger partnership and co-ordination across the post-16 skills system, is “central to enhancing a policy architecture, beset with challenges, fragmentation and churn”.

Gaps remain in Labour’s plans to fill shortages and spread opportunity

Notable in Sir Keir Starmer’s speech launching the Labour manifesto today was a lack of clear headlines on education. Though with polling showing education is not high on the public’s list of priorities for change, it was never going to get top billing.

It should nevertheless be welcomed that among the Labour’s five missions is ‘breaking down to the barriers to opportunity’. Under this heading, last year they announced an ambitious target to reduce intergenerational income persistence to Scandinavian levels – or in other words, improve social mobility.

To achieve this, they will have to go way beyond the policies set out in their manifesto – if and when there is headroom in public spending. And the further education sector will need to play a key role in any transformative plan to spread opportunity.

There were positive words in Starmer’s speech for further education, and a promise to transform FE colleges into specialist Technical Excellence Colleges.

Much of Labour’s broader narrative on growth has encouragingly focused on skills and jobs for the future. However, without tangible details on funding and how these ambitions will be met, this feels like an extension of the ‘parity of esteem’ conversation which has delivered little for the sector over the past two decades.

The establishment of a new body in ‘Skills England’ and plans to tie skills into broader industrial strategy have clear potential. But it is vital that the new body considers young people as a distinct group as well as adult learners, and that its work specifically considers barriers to training opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Devolving decision making to local areas in terms of skills needs has potential to genuinely help to level up skills across the country, but whether it has a positive effect, and where, will depend on implementation.

The promise to change the apprenticeship levy into a Growth and Skills Levy has been telegraphed since last year. While employers will no doubt appreciate the flexibility, it is absolutely vital that this does not come at the expense of high-quality apprenticeship provision that gives young people a qualification that has wider currency beyond the immediate needs of the employer.

They will have to go way beyond these policies

There is a significant danger that the levy backslides further into focusing on employers’ internal learning and development needs rather than funding a national apprenticeship offer that meets the broader skills demands of the economy and provides high quality alternatives for the 50 per cent of the population who don’t attend higher education.

Ringfencing will be necessary to protect the broader social goals of the apprenticeship programme.

While the manifesto points out the reduction in apprenticeship starts in recent years, the cannibalisation of the levy for other types of training may serve to worsen that trend. Increasing apprenticeship starts for young people will require investment, as well as a combination of carrots and sticks for employers.

The Sutton Trust has outlined a series of such options, including ringfencing a portion of the levy for young people, and extending subsidies to employers to create new opportunities.

Nonetheless, the acknowledgement of the importance of pre-apprenticeship skills is a positive one. An expanded traineeship programme has significant potential to widen access pathways into apprenticeships.

Labour are right to identify good teaching as the best thing you can offer a child to boost their chances in life. But it will be important that reforms to improve the status, pay and professional development of teachers also extends to post-16 settings.

Disappointingly, there was no mention of extending Pupil Premium funding to post-16. Socio-economic disadvantage doesn’t stop at 16, so there is no reason that dedicated funding should either.

The Sutton Trust’s manifesto of costed policies proposes an extension of the scheme. This would give sixth forms and colleges (particularly those supporting the most disadvantaged communities) targeted funding to boost learning, including targeted programmes such as tutoring, attendance interventions and staff development.

There is room for some optimism on today’s evidence. However, if we want further education to truly deliver on the promise of filling skills gaps and providing quality routes for young people into the workplace, the sector is going to need much more than warm words.

There are positives – but the Conservatives’ manifesto misfires on crucial issues

You’d have thought they’d come out fighting. Education, after all, is the record the Conservatives are proud to defend this election. Indeed, the opening sentence of the education chapter in the manifesto rightly proclaims, “English children are now the best readers in the Western world”.

And yet, just about every pledge after that seeks to put back into the system what policy decisions of the past 14 years have taken out: teachers, funding, school buildings, sports provision, a level playing field for academic and vocational qualifications at 16, 100,000 more apprenticeships and “valuable life skills” (only at 18, though) delivered through National Service.

Don’t get me wrong, “it is massive”, as Rob Halfon put it yesterday at our event to mark the Times Education Commission. Two years on, to hear a Prime Minister talking about skills – the Advanced British Standard (ABS), reaffirmed in the manifesto – has all the right ambitions to end the “damaging divide between vocational and academic education” at 16.

It’s also a rare gem of a policy in that it has cross-party support. Our recent polling with Public First found that 78 per cent of 2,000 adults would support a proposal to reform the education system in line with the ABS, while just 10 per cent oppose.

In fact, a massive 61 per cent said they thought the ABS would represent an improvement on the current system of 16-18 education. That support was steadfast regardless of voting intention.

It needs some fine-tuning: a much more serious teacher recruitment drive, collaboration with colleges and sixth forms and, crucially, the possibility for students to ‘mix and match’ academic and vocational subjects. The latter in particular is what drives public support for the policy.

It’s just a shame the party has come round to the idea of a truly broad and balanced curriculum so late in the day.

Despite much more reliable public support for the ABS, it is the new, multi-billion-pound National Service announcement (a compulsory programme of civic or military duties for 18-year-olds, backed by a Royal Commission) that takes centre stage in the manifesto.

The pledges are a far cry from tackling our pressing issues

Young people need meaningful, joyful opportunities to develop their skills for life, but why wait until 18? Why not invest this considerable funding into our schools and colleges? Aren’t they best-placed to deliver an enriched curriculum and co-curricular offer, in collaboration with businesses and the third sector, that compliments young people’s academic and/or technical study?

All in all, the manifesto pledges are a far cry from the ambition to tackle the pressing issues on the ground we heard in the room at Edge’s event yesterday.

Teach First’s Russell Hobby highlighted the immense workload burden driving teachers out of the profession, and Ark CEO Lucy Heller suggested the place to start to ease some of this pressure is accountability and assessment reform. Meanwhile, the manifesto sharply retorts: “We will back Ofsted”.

ASCL President and former headteacher, Evelyn Forde warned schools and colleges “have become the fourth emergency service”. Former children’s commissioner and Centre for Young Lives founder, Anne Longfield CBE suggested we need to “bring services together in common purpose” to help them identify children who need extra support in the early years.

Far too often, we leave it to our overstretched and under-resourced FE colleges to pick up the pieces, much too late in a young person’s life.

The manifesto confirms the extension of STEM teacher bonuses to those working in FE (and the ABS will help equalise teaching hours in schools and colleges). However, it does little to get to some of the knottier issues, like the GCSE resits policy and the adult skills budget.

As journalist and Times Education Commission chair, Rachel Sylvester concluded yesterday, “there is no policy that can change the country like education”. It underscores the talent pipelines for key sectors like health, housing, energy, digital and technology.

When the election was called, our CEO, Alice Barnard said: “What we say and do on education signals a much wider vision for the future of the UK.”

This manifesto was an opportunity for the Conservatives to address the critical needs of our young people, the education profession and the labour market. Evidently, they didn’t read the room.

Second ‘outstanding’ for Cheshire college

A Cheshire college has been rated ‘outstanding’ for the second time in four years for its “culture of continuous improvement”. 

Ofsted gave Riverside College in Widnes the highest rating following an inspection in April. Its report was published this week. 

Inspectors praised college leaders for their “highly effective quality assurance” processes for monitoring and improving teaching. 

Teachers used assessment “incisively” to adapt their teaching, check learners’ progress and provide “high-quality developmental feedback”. 

The college teaches more than 3,600 young students, more than 2,000 adults and about 450 apprentices. It was formed in 2006 following the merger of Halton College and Widnes and Runcorn Sixth Form College. 

It was rated ‘outstanding’ in all areas of effectiveness except provision for learners with high needs, which was rated ‘good’. 

This follows a 2020 inspection that also praised the college’s “culture of relentless self-improvement”. 

Principal Mary Murphy said the college was “overjoyed”.

“This achievement is a testament to the unwavering dedication and hard work of our exceptional staff and students. 

“I am immensely proud of our college community for their pursuit of excellence and for consistently upholding the high standards that have once again been recognised by Ofsted.” 

Inspectors said teachers and leaders were “passionate” about providing life-changing opportunities for young people and adults, many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Teachers were also rated as “highly qualified” and commended for putting a “great deal of thought” into their work. 

Inspectors also reported “extremely positive attitudes” from students, who felt “valued and respected”, “highly motivated” and had high attendance levels. 

The college was also praised for improving the attendance of its apprentices when staff noticed that “a few” had been leaving some programmes early. 

On the question of the college meeting local skills needs, inspectors found “highly effective partnerships” with stakeholders. 

The college had undertaken “extensive research” to identify local needs, particularly in the north west’s emerging hydrogen industry. 

It also worked with employers in the welding and construction sectors. 

Labour manifesto 2024: The FE pledges

Labour has promised “a comprehensive strategy” to “better integrate” further and higher education in its general election manifesto published this morning.

Under Labour leader Keir Starmer’s ‘break down barriers to opportunity’ mission, a Labour government would “better integrate further and higher education” by setting out the roles of different training providers, how students can move between them and “strengthening regulation”.

Details of how the review and changes to regulation would work remain limited.

Any changes appear likely to be led by the party’s promise of a new body, Skills England, which will “bring together” businesses, training providers and unions with regional and national government.

Skills England would oversee a “highly trained” workforce for the economy, informed by Labour’s promised industrial strategy, while putting employers “at the heart” of the skills system.

But the manifesto doesn’t mention a previously promised pause and review of the Conservative’s planned bonfire of BTECs and other rival T Level qualifications. 

Commitments to other existing education policies, like the Advanced British Standard and the lifelong learning entitlement, also remain unclear.

Labour promised to reform the skills system after years of Conservative “chaos and policy churn”, addressing “plummeting” apprenticeship numbers, and “widespread” skills shortages.

Pledges confirmed in the manifesto but already outlined by Labour include the creation of “specialist” technical excellence colleges, replacing the apprenticeship levy and a youth guarantee of access to training.

The manifesto says Labour will reform the “broken” apprenticeships levy, criticising the current system’s “rigid rules”.

Its growth and skills levy would allow employers to fund non-apprenticeship courses deemed eligible by Skills England. Labour’s announcement earlier this month to fund pre-apprenticeship traineeship courses through their new levy didn’t appear in the manifesto. 

The manifesto also confirmed plans to replace a single headline Ofsted grade with a report card system showing how education providers are performing.

Domestic training plans to reduce immigration

Previously announced plans to create workforce and training plans to avoid being “overly dependent” on workers from abroad to fill skills shortages were confirmed.

By linking the immigration and skills systems, Labour says it will use “joined-up thinking” by ensuring that plans to “upskill workers” are formulated for sectors seeing high overseas recruitment like health, social care and construction. 

It said: “The days of a sector languishing endlessly on immigration shortage lists with no action to train up workers will come to an end.” This will work by formally linking the new Skills England and the Migration Advisory Committee.

More devolved skills powers

Labour promises local areas will “gain new powers” over adult education, skills and employment support.

The manifesto confirms Labour’s pledge to “deepen” devolution settlements for existing combined authorities and widening devolution to more areas by encouraging local authorities to come together.

However, the party also pledged to review governance at combined authorities to “unblock decision making” and ensure they can deliver – with central government support – “where needed”.

In line with current ‘trailblazer’ devolution agreements, combined authorities that show “exemplary” management of their funding will also have “greater flexibility” with financial settlements.

There will be a new legal requirement for “local growth plans” – aligning with the national industrial strategy – covering towns and cities across the country that bring employers, universities, colleges and industry bodies together. It’s unclear whether these new growth plans would be in addition to, or replace, local skills improvement plans.

Supporting people into work

On employment, Labour said Jobcentre Plus and the National Careers Service will merge so they are more “responsive” to local employers and services.

The party will devolve funding so local areas can “shape a joined-up work, health and skills offer”.

Policy costings revealed £85 million of the £1.5 billion raised from applying VAT to private schools will be spent on a “guarantee” of two weeks’ work experience for young people and improved careers advice in colleges and schools.