I’m ending 2023 far more optimistic than I started.
In January we were still reeling a little from an autumn statement in which the chancellor had talked a good game on skills but instead invested in schools. It felt like a kick in the teeth and an ominous sign for the future.
Fast forward 12 months, however, and there is much more to suggest that both colleges and post-16 education are viewed as investible propositions across the political parties.
The positive signs started in July with the additional funding announced by Gillian Keegan, which has already started to support better pay in many colleges. We cannot underestimate the significance of this: for the first time college pay was addressed by DfE alongside schoolteacher pay. This shows a recognition of how important pay is in both settings.
The focus on colleges continued in the prime minister’s speech at the Conservative Party conference when he backed a 10-year programme to transform the 16-to-19 education phase.
This is, of course, easily dismissed as a long-term plan that will not last the imminent general election. But that would be wrong given that the Advanced British Standard (not a great name, but that will not last) is based on principles we have been campaigning on for years. It includes more hours of contact time for every young person, at all levels, and a simpler menu of options across the so-called academic and technical divide to allow more breadth. Importantly, it signals a strong desire to open up technical learning to more young people, of all abilities and backgrounds.
The ABS consultation and developments also give us a prime opportunity to address other longstanding campaign ambitions: pay and recruitment, workload, capital investment, moving from competition to collaboration and better linking apprenticeships with what happens inside colleges and schools.
That ABS announcement was followed by Keir Starmer’s plan to support colleges to take on a new enhanced role as Technical Excellence Colleges, presumably with the investment to match. It built on Labour’s strong focus on increasing awareness of the importance of skills across all of their ‘missions’.
This theme of stronger recognition continued in October with our Colleges Week parliamentary reception, which felt different to previous years. Alongside Gillian Keegan, we also heard speeches from shadow skills minister, Seema Malhotra, and Lib Dem education spokesperson, Munira Wilson. That’s not particularly remarkable, but their words and clear desire to show how much they recognise, respect and endorse colleges almost felt as if they were competing to prove they were the college sector’s biggest supporter.
It’s a nice place for us to be after too many years of neglect.
There are plenty of other indications of a stronger understanding of colleges’ vital role and the importance of investment in post-16 education. Take, for example, the engagement we now have at national policy level with universities on developing a reformed tertiary approach. We’ve always believed that the education system needs thriving schools, colleges and universities as anchor institutions, working to their strengths and collaborating to help people navigate to what they want and need. My optimism is that we are starting to see wider agreement on how that might be achieved.
However, we cannot be complacent; there are still enormous challenges. Funding is still way below 2010 levels, pay lags too far behind schools and industry, qualifications reform could risk the education of tens of thousands, reclassification has brought unwelcome restrictions that hamper colleges’ ability to deliver and public finances look extremely tight for years to come.
All of that will keep us busy in 2024, but it is a relief to no longer need to keep fighting for a seat at the table; we are now engaged much more closely in policy formulation and implementation.
That brings its own challenges of course, because none of this is easy and there are rarely clear-cut obvious right (or wrong) policies. Compromise, scarce resources and competing views will always dominate education policy.
For me, it’s clear the college sector is now a force to be reckoned with in Whitehall. We need to use that influence wisely and carefully, but it’s a much better end to this year than last.