We’ve been through turbulent times again this year. A year ago we were in the midst of a huge spike in cases of the omicron variant and heading for another Christmas badly affected by the pandemic.
Covid is not over – we seem to be finding a way to live with it now – but the challenges this year are perhaps even more daunting. We’d all hoped that by now that further education would be on the road to recovery and that rising funding would start to make life a little bit easier.
With runaway inflation, and the energy crisis, that’s far from the case. The impact is all too evident; with the chief inspector at Ofsted warning this week that quality in colleges is suffering from a lack of skilled staff which in turn is driven by inadequate funding resulting in low pay.
We’ve also seen Education Policy Institute analysis showing that the disadvantage gap in education has widened over the last few years.
To add to the gloomy picture, the Institute for Fiscal Studies repeated their analysis from the last few years showing the dire state of FE funding and the Public Accounts Committee published another timely report which underscores the problem.
We all know the funding picture now after more than a decade of austerity is unsustainable and it is obvious action is needed, but the government seems unwilling to act for colleges, having seemingly deemed that increased funding for schools was a bigger vote-winner in the Autumn Statement.
After five education secretaries, three skills ministers, four chancellors and three prime ministers this year, we have ministers now at the top table in Sanctuary Buildings – Gillian Keegan and Rob Halfon – who know us well. We have to hope that their understanding and commitment to FE and colleges can help them secure funding from Treasury.
We don’t want any more warm words about skills and the importance to productivity, economic growth and levelling up – those words don’t help, they even make it all feel worse. What we need to see is proper, sustained investment and a more stable period for colleges to get on with meeting the needs in their communities.
Unfortunately, we are asking for more funding at the same time as the Chancellor is planning a new set of severe public sector cuts from 2024/25.
Our challenge is to show that funding for colleges is an investment with strong returns for the economy and for the Treasury. We will need to remind the Chancellor of his own words in presenting the Autumn Statement that to “be pro-education is to be pro-growth”.
For us at AoC, and for college leaders we are determined to be louder, bolder and more combative in our campaigning and influencing.
We’ll not be doing that alone, as our Future Skills Coalition shows. That collaboration with the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and City & Guilds has already started to bring other organisations on board to form a wider coalition of voices which we believe will make more of an impact where it matters.
We are also urging college leaders to step up again and be part of the fight. Their work in engaging MPs, mobilising the employers they work with, and their students can have a big impact when amplified across the country at key points in the year.
Redoubling our efforts now is the right thing to do, as every other sector will also be scrambling to make the case for better funding amid fiscal tightening, especially in the run-up to a general election within two years.
It can feel exhausting to keep having to make the same arguments, especially when the case for a properly funded skills system could not be clearer.
It is vital though to make our case strongly because it is the persistent voices – and the loudest voices – which cut through.
We need now to fight for our sector, to fight clever, to take a united front to make the case for better skills funding. I am optimistic that we will do that and hopeful that it will reap rewards.