The government's plans for improving skills in Britain are ambitious and wide-ranging. The Chancellor's briefing document, "Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation," explains in a little over eighty pages how this is to be done.
It calls for nothing less than a radical overhaul of the whole education sector including widespread reform for schools, the much-vaunted three million apprenticeship starts and accompanying large employer levy, a root-and-branch reorganisation of professional and technical education. It demands wider access to improving universities and emphasises strategies to "mobilise people into jobs," including continuing benefit reform where payment is increasingly tied to mandatory education or work placements.
In a letter to all FE Colleges, the Minister for the sector, Nick Boles, says, "We need to take the opportunity to proactively [sic] reshape our provider base to deliver both strong and stable institutions." For "reshape" read "shrink." The government has all but accepted that the removal of almost a third of college incomes over the past five years has left many in dire financial straits, even close to collapse. With this in mind, regional reviews are to be carried out to both look for looking for "synergies," and to target shrinking public sector investment towards those skills most needed/demanded by employers in the region. It demands nothing less than reform of the FE system, to one which has fewer, probably larger institutions. I have heard some in the sector translate this as merge, federate or die. I am more optimistic, and, more pragmatic. Any opportunity to rethink, reshape and reform has the potential to deliver improved outcomes. It is possible to get to a better place, to end up with a system that is stronger and fitter. Possible, but not inevitable and each of us involved must commit to making it work for our students and stakeholders.
Much is made of the need for employers to be more closely involved in the design of training courses, something of which Milton Keynes College has been at the forefront. But the review plans make no mention of an equally important relationship - that between colleges and schools - and disappointingly the schools are not themselves to be part of the review at all.
Schools provide the raw material for FE colleges. They play a huge role in those decisions made by young people at fourteen which will shape their educational future. Some of the biggest challenges our students and we face result directly from the outcomes of those decisions. Significant numbers of young people come to college every year because they are disillusioned with school, but others arrive at our door for precisely the opposite reason, that school is disillusioned with them. If a school no longer wants to work with an individual we are one of very few options available to them. Worse still are the cases of people who have stayed on for the first year of sixth form and then decide to come to us. Those students, generally low on self-confidence, are suffering from all the problems associated with what they now see as having wasted the previous year. From a purely financial point-of-view, their arrival at seventeen is not ideal for colleges either as they attract significantly lower funding than they would have twelve months' earlier. How can regional reviews possibly divine the best way forward if none of this is taken into account?
This week saw global accounting giants, Ernst & Young, announce that they are abandoning all educational criteria for taking on new staff to train having found no evidence that selecting the most successful graduates gained them better employees. Instead they will rely entirely on their own selection exams. What does this say about the state of Higher Education and its understanding of employers' needs, the very people Fixing the Foundations says it wants to put "in the driving seat?"
Everyone wants improvements in skills and to see our nation's productivity levels improve. Everyone wants to see value for money in all areas of government spending including education. Everyone wants to see as near to full employment as can possibly be achieved. So why not involve everyone in the conversation about how it can be done? There will be areas of the country and of the curriculum where collaborations among colleges can be made beneficial to learners and employers alike and where savings can be made. I firmly believe this system review of FE can deliver these outcomes, we can get to a strong end point, BUT, there are risks, every case will be different, every improvement can have a downside, every action will have unintended consequences. If we're to get it as near right as we can, schools and universities have to be involved and cooperation will have to mean just that. If individual institutions or sectors concentrate on raising the drawbridge and defending their own interests and identities, outcomes will be more than disappointing. And there's another euphemism; for "outcomes" read the lives of our young people and the ability of our industries to compete in an ever more competitive global marketplace. Colleges may close, schools may be forced into academy chains, universities may slide down league tables, but in the end, if we get it wrong, the human cost will be the greatest of all.