"And it's goodbye from me..." Farewell from outgoing AoC President, Dr Alison Birkinshaw

By Alison Birkinshaw on

Dr Alison Birkinshaw

What’s the saying, ‘the more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it’?  Certainly my experience at AoC has allowed me to see much more clearly the work that goes on to support and promote our wonderful sector. I have been deeply impressed by the absolute dedication of the team at AoC, their real understanding of the work colleges do, and the impact made on the life chances of our students.

When I stood for President, I said that I would focus on two key agendas: maths and English, and funding.  So now, I look back on whether I managed to make a difference, and I don’t think we have yet made much of a dint in the English and maths issue as we need to.  I still believe that the content of the GCSE specification, especially in English, is not appropriate for post-16 students (or pre-16 students come to that), and I believe it should be possible to design a much more sensible curriculum which meets the needs of students and employers.  However, we have made some progress with the maths and English component of T-levels where it looks as if there will be embedded literacy and number in the core, plus separately funded maths and English qualifications to level 2 if these have not yet been achieved. We also have the tolerance in the funding condition now.  However, there is still a ministerial belief that all students should achieve GCSE by 19, and we are now campaigning for this to be separately funded due the limitations this places on our ability to provide a rich curriculum within 600 hours funding.

I do think we are making progress on the funding issue.  Many key figures are now publicly stating that the FE sector is under-funded.  Amanda Spielman of Ofsted, Richard Atkins, the FE Commissioner, even Anne Milton has acknowledged the issue and AoC Chief Executive, David Hughes has been very vocal in explaining the impact of underfunding FE colleges, particularly in a post-Brexit climate.  Whilst there is more to be done, work is continuing within the Department with the assistance of AoC to understand fully the costs versus income of providing the post-16 curriculum.

I don’t believe that it is possible to put together a sensible curriculum, including maths and English and work experience, within the current funding available.  Rising costs and increasing levels of bureaucracy as our sector becomes more complex mean that funding cannot support the overheads. Neither can we afford to pay our staff a decent wage, so they go elsewhere. So colleges start to question their very purpose:  can they continue to offer bespoke provision for young people likely to become NEET, how do they support those with behavioural difficulties, how can we offer a rich and enabling curriculum for all, and how to provide the support for the Oxbridge or Russell group applicants?  The limitations placed on us because of our funding means that inequality is embedded in our education system. That is a fate we should do everything to avoid for our students and our communities.

My time as President has given me a unique opportunity to visit colleges across the country, meeting with staff doing incredible things, in incredibly tough circumstances. Lives are being transformed every single day, and we will not stop until decision-makers recognise this and properly fund colleges to allow every person the very best opportunities, whatever their background, whatever their stage in life. 

I will now hand the baton on to the next President – and wish Steve every success with this vital role – our sector and its students are worth the hard work that will come over the next year.  I would like to give a massive thanks to everyone at the AoC for supporting me throughout the past year, to fellow principals who, as always, have been fantastic towards me personally but also in their support of the sector, and to all those unsung heroes who know that FE colleges make life-changing differences each day of the year.  Long may that continue.