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Reflections of the year

22 December 2016

It’s not easy to describe 2016: surprising, unpredictable, bewildering, exciting, crazy… Whatever the best word for it is, it’s been quite a year. Politically, it’s been a year of the unexpected. The EU referendum result led to a virtually new Cabinet and certainly a change of policy direction. The education talk at the start of the year was that all schools would be turned into academies. Under a new Prime Minister and new Secretary of State for Education, this has shifted to an increase in grammar schools, despite a focus on social mobility. It will be interesting to see how these proposals progress given the widespread and near-universal opposition to the proposals. Under the new look Conservative Government, colleges are definitely getting more attention. We have a Secretary of State for Education who values colleges and appreciates the roles which they play, particularly in high-quality technical and professional education they provide. The Sainsbury Review and Post-16 Skills Plan released in the summer place colleges at the heart of the skills agenda, with new qualifications planned that meet the needs of employers, students and the economy. These messages, and the commitment to colleges, have been repeated many times over the last couple of months, not least at our Annual Conference by both the Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, and the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP. I know that there is some scepticism about how significant this all is, as well as some nervousness that the focus is on colleges delivering technical education rather than academic. The risk many members have voiced is that the academic route will be viewed more and more as solely for schools and sixth form colleges. I don’t think that is likely, but we will certainly need to continue to promote the breadth of education offered by all colleges. Taking over as Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges in September has been an exciting challenge for me. Once again we have been able to celebrate the success of college students this year, both past and present. College students performed so well at the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio this year that they would have ended 20th on the medal table at the Olympics and 6th in the Paralympics, with combined tallies of 23 golds, 13 silver and nine bronze medals. But what about 2017? I think it’s going to be a year of opportunity for colleges. I know that the Secretary of State of Education appreciates the central role colleges have in tackling the skills shortages we expect to see widen as skilled immigration slows down. We will be pushing for that understanding to be backed by proper investment at the March and November budgets. There will also be the challenges attached to the implementation of the apprenticeship levy – a wholesale change in the way colleges work with employers. Our work to support the new Institute to Apprenticeships will be key to helping get this right. 2017 will also see the end of the area review process and the implementation of recommendations. There are more mergers in the pipeline resulting in a very different shape for the sector. I just hope that we can persuade DfE to carry out a similar exercise with school sixth forms. After just four months in this job, I am excited and optimistic about next year. Having great colleges in every community, across the country is so important. As the sector changes, as the world around us shifts, I am committed to making sure that the AoC delivers what members want and need. And I look forward to working closely with colleges to secure the investment we need to meet the needs of the country. David Hughes is the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges