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Colleges, education and the future

15 April 2015

So the battle lines have officially been drawn. Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Greens…they’ve all published their manifestos this week. And what have we learnt? Well, the three main parties seem to have been focusing on where they have traditionally been ‘weakest’ – Labour on the economy and spending, the Conservatives on working people and the Lib Dems on education, following the tuition fees argument. This is an interesting approach – to try and get the retaliation in first against the critics in the media and the wider population. Only time will tell if their strategies are right. Money matters are clearly at the heart of what they’re saying – Labour and the Lib Dems have pledged to ringfence education spending up to the age of 19 – something which we have been campaigning for, and is needed after the cuts colleges have faced. The Tories have said they won’t – they’ve said they’ll protect school funding per pupil. But what about adult education, not including apprenticeships? This year alone we’ve seen cuts of 24% for this…if it carries on, this vital provision will be completely decimated. Sadly, no one has mentioned the possibility of a once in a generation review of the education budget – something which we feel is vital to ensure fairness. Unsurprisingly, apprenticeships have been highlighted in the manifestos – with each party pledging higher and higher numbers. The focus on quantity instead of quality is not the best starting point. Apprenticeships are important, and it’s great that they have been getting the prominence they deserve. But what about the other options available? For young people, we need to make sure that they are properly prepared to take on a job (let’s not forget, that’s what an apprenticeship is), which is why we believe that a pre-apprenticeship, providing them with the skills and experience they need to be an integral part of the business, is so important. And for people over 24 – those who want to change career - there needs to be proper support, and the most appropriate routes for them to take. Which is why, as mentioned previously, maintaining the adult skills budget is so important. But this will be unprotected by any future Government. For me, what’s been interesting is that Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have both mentioned colleges in their speeches and their manifestos – something that has previously been unheard of. Can we see this as an achievement of the lobbying work that we, and our member colleges, have done over the last five years? Well, yes, partly. But I think it’s also down to the politicians, and their advisers, realising that our sector has had to face a barrage of unfair cuts, yet offer fantastic futures for millions of people. It’s only three weeks until the Election now…the real test will be whether colleges will remain in their thoughts from 8 May onwards – whatever colour or combination of colours ends up in Government. Chris Walden is the Director of Public Affairs and Communications at AoC