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With the end of area reviews, now colleges can get on with the real business

03 August 2017

The publication of the last 15 area review reports, many months after the actual reviews finished, gives us all the chance to pause for (two) thoughts: what have they achieved and what needs to happen now? The experience of colleges participating in the reviews was varied, with some finding them constructive and helpful, whilst others viewed them as distracting and irrelevant. In most cases the area review was a useful prompt for colleges to think about their strategy within the local context and in relationship to other colleges. It would have been, of course, a whole lot more illuminating and useful if the Reviews had properly engaged other post-16 provision, particularly school sixth forms. In some areas, the review was stimulus for working collaboratively after many years of being urged to compete. The work in the Sheffield City Region on analysing the ‘market’ for Level 3+ skills is a good example where the combined authority is working with the colleges and universities to plan and work together. There is also no doubt that some mergers were triggered which will lead to the rationalisation needed for longer term financial viability. That rather modest list of achievements leaves some big issues still to be addressed. So here are my top five issues for the Department for Education (DfE) to focus on so that we can all move on from area reviews, perhaps even without looking back. The first issue is a big one – we need a coherent vision and strategy for post-16 learning and skills rather than a loosely connected and often disconnected set of policies. The welcome investment announced this year into the new T Levels is great news, but what is a T Level? Who is it for? How does it fit with other options at age 16? Can we describe the options at 16 to students, parents, teachers, employers or the media simply? I don’t think so. The position is no better at age 19 and beyond. Full-time three year undergraduate degrees are easy to understand, and even apprenticeships are starting to be. But try explaining a Level 4 or a Level 5 to a 16-year-old and their eyes really do glaze over. Even if its too ambitious to expect a vision and strategy to make it clearer to the whole population, at least it might help those of us in education to focus our efforts. Once the vision for 16-19 and adults is understood then DfE will need to properly review the funding and investment it provides for colleges to deliver. On the former, we need to face the fact that young people in England are getting a raw deal – they now benefit from around 15 hours per week teaching and support for two years compared with their counterparts in most OECD countries getting 25 hours or more for two or sometimes three years. That is not just a funding issue, it is a moral issue and should deeply concern every one of us. The picture for adults is probably even worse. Ten years ago the Government’s investment in adult learning was more than twice what it is now whilst adult basic skills are still an enormous challenge and many employers are struggling to find skilled workers. Apprenticeship investment may be rising, but that only works for people in good jobs with employers who recognise how important workforce development is. The reality is that too many employers will not invest in their staff; if you work for one of them then your options for training and skills are severely limited. Third on my list is the need to review school sixth forms and UTCs along the same lines as the area reviews did for colleges. A simple look at viability in financial and educational terms would illuminate all sorts of issues, including the very narrow offer all too often made to young people and the poor quality of experience which is often associated with small school sixth forms. Fourthly, we need a proper strategy from DfE about English and maths. We all share the ambition that every young person should reach a good standard of functional literacy, numeracy and digital skills so that they are ready to enter work and carry out further study. I’ve said for some time that the current policy is failing to achieve that and we need a grown- up debate about what needs to happen prior to age 16 as well as for 16-year-olds who are struggling. That debate then needs to lead to shared responsibility between schools, colleges and the Government for what needs to be done to help more young people progress and achieve. More discretion about the best qualification for each student, curriculum changes, new qualifications, designing a new transition year, investment in teachers, realistic success measures for colleges, building understanding of what works and so on can all help build a more constructive atmosphere for colleges to be able to meet the policy ambition. Fifthly and finally, I’d love to see DfE develop a more coherent, long term and supportive strategy for and with colleges to develop quality, capacity and capability to deliver the apprenticeships, T Levels, applied general, basic skills, higher level learning and higher education which we all want to see. I envisage a positive statement from Government which we can develop together about the place, purpose and contribution which colleges will make, the investment Government will make in people, buildings, facilities and in students, the partnership relationship Government aspires to with colleges and the collaborative, stable and creative environment in which colleges will be able to thrive. And the good news is that officials and Ministers in DfE have no legislation to focus on, so there is time and space to do this thinking and to engage colleges as well as others in the debate we need. We’re ready for the debate now and there aren’t any area reviews to get in the way of the debate we’ve needed for some time now – what do our students, communities, labour markets and employers need from colleges and what long-term investment will the Government make to help meet those needs? David Hughes is Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges