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New term, new opportunities

12 September 2016

The start of the academic year is always an exciting and vibrant one in further education, but this year it feels even more laced with the potential for change. The Brexit vote and the resultant political changes have created real uncertainty about so many things. That uncertainty throws up all sorts of opportunities as well as threats for colleges, of course, which is why it is such a good time for me to be starting in my new role at the Association of Colleges. It was fascinating to be at the Prime Minister’s speech last week and speak to Ministers, senior party faithful and advisers about the thinking behind it. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the announcement is how unexpected it was, having not been in the Conservative Party manifesto, having been explicitly ruled out by the previous PM and having been opposed by so many across the political spectrum. This creates enormous challenges for colleges and for us at AoC because it shows that we are not always operating in a world of evidence-based and incremental policy-making. Understanding the impetus for policies like this one are critical to being able to influence the thinking as well as the policy and implementation details. Fortunately I am quickly finding out that Martin Doel has left me a great team of staff at AoC who are adept at this sort of work and who are determined to make sure that colleges and their students get the best possible deal. The grammar school issues are now added to a long list of policy, funding and regulation issues which we need to continue to work on and influence. Last week I made a presentation at an internal Ofsted conference and spelt out how much is changing for colleges and how tough it is to make sense of it all in order to respond properly. More than anything I’d like to see ministers and officials step back from all of the individual policy changes to seek more coherence as well as manage the changes across a more realistic timetable. All of the changes facing colleges also mean it is a great time to think about the AoC itself – what we do, how we do it, what services are provided to members and so on. The last full review was in 2008 and much has changed since then, so my visits over the coming weeks to every region are an important opportunity to hear from members their views, needs, hopes, aspirations. I’m keen to find out what needs to stay the same for AoC and what changes members want to see. Spending a bit of time on this now will ensure that we provide the most compelling voice for colleges and the best services to members possible. So, a really good first week for me and a warm welcome from so many people. I know that there’s not much time to dwell on being new though because so much needs to be done across so many areas of change. That suits me fine because I am eager to get stuck into it and continue the great work which AoC has been doing. David Hughes is the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges