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New year, same issues

13 January 2016

It’s the middle of January already. The Christmas break seems like a lifetime ago and New Year resolutions have been forgotten about already (I’m sure I’m not alone on this). But January is also a good time to take stock and look ahead to the coming year. 2015 can be summed up with funding, apprenticeships and area reviews, and it seems that 2016 is likely to follow two of the three themes. Last year started badly when the Government announced a 25% cut to the adult skills budget. This was exacerbated just days before the start of the new academic year when a further 3.9% cut was imposed. Not only were the cuts excessively harsh, the timing of the second announcement was unacceptable. It’s pleasing that this has been Public Accounts Committee in its report before Christmas identified this. Hopefully, we shouldn’t be rocked by cuts like this after the Chancellor’s Spending Review announcement in November. But we will not be complacent. For politicians, the buzzword for 2015 was apprenticeships, and it’s certainly going to continue into 2016. With the Conservative Government came the pledge to create three million apprenticeship places. That means that for the full life of the Parliament, there needs to be a new apprenticeship place created every minute of every day for five years. Is this realistic in practice? Or will it mean that existing training will be rebadged as apprenticeships, just to get extra funding from the Government to help meet their target. If this happens then we are at risk of devaluing the brand of an apprentice, not boosting it up to being an alternative to going to university. The apprenticeship levy was certainly a bold move by the Chancellor when he announced it in his Budget in July (I doubt a Labour Chancellor would have got away with it). This was made bolder still in November when he revealed the levy would be 0.5% on organisations with a wage bill of over £3 million. This might have gone down like a lead balloon in some quarters, but for the Association of Colleges, we see the benefits for it, and it was one of our recommendations to the Spending Review. Setting the levy at 0.5% of an employer’s payroll will help to ensure high-quality training is available for many more apprentices, as well as creating a new era of opportunities for colleges. But the Government needs to remember that apprenticeships are a job with training so they must continue to encourage employers to provide these roles. How the levy will work in practice will be something to watch this year, before it starts in April 2017. Finally, there’s area reviews. The Government has outlined its plan to move towards “fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers”. The first wave of reviews are being completed at the moment, with the second starting now. Throughout the process what’s needed is fairness. Is it fair for further education and sixth form colleges to be singled out for review, yet other providers of post-16 education are not? For any of this work to be truly effective, all providers must be involved. It’s also led to a contradiction in policies. The Government is after fewer colleges, but wants to create new academies and free schools in an already saturated market. In addition, the Government and the FE Commissioner need to learn the lessons from the first wave of area reviews to improve future processes. January allows politicians to make New Year resolutions. I suggest the following – before making an announcement, think about the impact on students. Everyone involved in a college understands how important a role they play in shaping the lives and futures of the three million students that come through their doors every year. However, since the election the Government has been determined to make an impact. In the first months after May it seemed that there were two or three policy changes a week, some of which seemed to be contradictory (the Prime Minister highlighting how integrating immigrants in Britain was essential, yet at the same time funding for English as a Second Language being cut for example). Despite this, the needs of students of all ages often seem secondary to structural and funding changes. Apprenticeships and area reviews are issues which will continue into the year ahead. We will be keeping a watchful eye to make sure colleges and their students are at the heart of future decisions. John Widdowson is President of the Association of Colleges.