It is vitally important that FE shows it is responding to the Government’s reform agenda, says Gemma Gathercole.

As the FE sector gathers for this year’s AoC Conference, I suspect the majority head to Birmingham with a sense of foreboding ahead of the spending review announcements and autumn statement that will follow next week.

Although no pronouncements have been given at the conference, there is a sense of a direction of travel.

But as we gathered in Birmingham last year, there was uncertainty then too.

At that time, we were looking at a hard to predict election, which could have led to any number of different scenarios of majority or coalition government.

In May, we got a decisive outcome, a majority Conservative government. From their manifesto, we could all understand the likely implications for FE.

In his speech to conference, Skills Minster Nick Boles, reiterated that FE will not be insulated from further spending cuts although he didn’t go so far as to pre-announce what is likely to come next week.

We need to demonstrate the sector’s ‘distance travelled’ to stop another review from starting in the future with the same objectives

However, if you look at the key topics he touched on, we may get a clearer picture of what’s ahead.

His key themes were apprenticeships, loans and the area reviews.

He urged more colleges to offer apprenticeships and to structure programmes to support young people to progress into apprenticeships.

The fundamental question about how to encourage more employers to take on young people remains unanswered.

On loans, in what was perhaps a simple mis-speak, or could have been an early indication, he spoke of advanced learning loans and missed the 24+ element of the name.

On area reviews, the focus was squarely on fewer, larger colleges, which would be stronger institutions.

There was very little unchartered ground here for us to understand what the future holds, as the majority of the speech content had been trialled over recent weeks.

Alison Wolf’s themes of English exceptionalism and what we do wrong provided some challenge to the government’s agenda, particularly on how the government will pay for 3m apprenticeship starts.

I hope that Alison uses her views to good effect in the review panel that was announced in recent weeks to look at the technical and professional system.

Furthermore, news from an AoC Conference workshop session run with the Skills Funding Agency that from April 2017 there will be no more allocations for apprenticeships, brings sharply into focus the impact of the ongoing reforms.

The timescale for delivery is incredibly fast and will require a step change in how the sector approaches employer engagement for apprenticeships.

In relation to English and maths, I’ve often talked about the old saying ‘if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’.

I think there’s a broader lesson here.

Both FE and the awarding body community have been asked to go through a minefield of reforms over the last five years. And more reform is destined ahead.

In a recent article for this paper, OCR director of skills and employment Charlotte Bosworth called for a once in a lifetime review of the whole education and skills system. It’s obviously a view I share.

Rather than focusing on the concerns we all have about the future, we can seize this as an opportunity.

We can review our structures, our programmes, our qualifications in line with the policies and review already announced, but we must seize the opportunity to demonstrate the changes we are and will be making.

We need to demonstrate the sector’s ‘distance travelled’ to stop another review from starting in the future with the same objectives.

We must demonstrate that we’ve changed our provision, so it doesn’t look like we’re doing what we’ve always done.

Now might be the time for us to stop hiding the wiring about what we all do so that employers, civil servants and government as a whole can see the impact that can be made.

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