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01 September 2016

This is my final week as Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC). How best to sum up 8 ½ years here? Each week I have sent a weekly update to members – so around 450 in total. Looking back at these is one way of charting crises, achievements and changes over the years. The first of the letters was written in early December 2008 as the capital crisis began to break over colleges. A classic of case of mismanagement of resources resembling a game of musical chairs where no one in the Learning and Skills Council seemed to have noticed that colleges were being promised £6 billion of investment in buildings when there was only £3 billion in the pot. December 2008 was when the music stopped and reality dawned. The overhang of the capital crisis cast a long shadow over many colleges which had invested considerable sums in preparing building plans, or were required to substitute expensive bank loans for the previously promised grants. This then constrained their ability to deal with the next looming crisis – the spending cuts that marked the years of the Coalition Government. Cuts were justified by the need to reduce the budget deficit, but they fell disproportionately upon further education (FE) and colleges in particular. Funding for young people aged 16-18 fell by 14% in cash terms between 2010 and 2015 and clearly more in real terms. Perhaps the most pernicious of these cuts was a further cut to funding to young people failed by the school system who need three years to complete their studies after age 16. The result is that funding for 16 to 18-year-olds is now 22% less than for 11 to 16-year-olds. For 19-year-olds the shortfall is an additional 17.5%. Adult education funding was even more severely affected by a cut of 40%, partly in order to fund the growth in apprenticeships. At the same time school funding received funding increases in line with inflation and universities benefited from an increase of income of 10% with the introduction of increased tuition fees. There were, however, some advances in the years of the Coalition. Chief amongst them was the renaissance of apprenticeships and the move away from funding per qualification towards common funding per student at age 16-18. The latter was complemented by the introduction of programmes of study, providing the prospect of a more balanced curriculum for young people. The author of the report that ushered in programmes of study, Baroness Alison Wolf, was also the author of a more critical, but no less influential, report on Government policy: Heading for the Precipice. Building upon AoC analysis, she pointed to the aggregate effect of the sustained cuts to funding for colleges over the period of the Coalition, using the metaphor that FE was about to go over the edge of a precipice and arguing for a redistribution of funds from HE to FE. Last year an unexpected Conservative majority in the General Election led to a much vaunted Spending Review, where colleges, and others across the public sector, expected the worse. The representations ahead of this by AoC, informing and being informed by analysis of others, had the welcome outcome that after five years of declining funding for young people and adult education, this has been stabilised - in cash terms, at least. This provides some welcome respite and space for colleges to navigate area reviews (themselves a consequence of the previous sustained cuts) and devolution. It also allows colleges to make a full contribution to the delivery of apprenticeships underwritten by the levy, as well as changes to technical education foreshadowed in the Sainsbury Review. At times, sitting at the centre of the maelstrom that has surrounded colleges over the past few years could have been dispiriting and defeating. That it has not been so has been due to two factors: the resourcefulness and resilience of those who lead and work within colleges and the team that I have been privileged to lead at AoC. I cannot think of another set of institutions who could have weathered the storms that colleges have encountered since 2008. If universities had faced similar cuts we would have had vice-chancellors proclaiming the end of civilisation as we know it; if schools are been subject to similarly consistent underfunding the system would have been in complete and utter disarray. Colleges have stood their ground, despite the funding battering, and the very great majority have adjusted with ingenuity, making hard decisions and drawing upon the depth of leadership and character that exists throughout the sector, whether in principals, managers, teachers or governors. The role of AoC in all this has, on many occasions, been in preventing even worse outcomes for colleges. Whilst not inspiring as a message, it has been a reality in the face of inconstant ministerial attention and constrained public finances. As importantly, AoC has stayed in the game, winning the argument for college autonomy in area reviews, for adequate funding in the Spending Review, for the benefits of specialist 16-18 education in conditions for setting up school sixth forms, for the need for high quality technical education in the Skills Plan, for colleges to be at the centre of apprenticeship delivery, and for them to be seen as essential partners in devolution. To have been able to do this and to be justifiably recognised as the authoritative and credible voice of colleges has been down to the incredibly talented and dedicated staff at AoC. I have never worked with a stronger and more dedicated set of people. As to the future, colleges will survive as they have always done, but those who will thrive will be those with a firm sense of self and place. If I have a regret in my time at AoC, it is that I have not pressed hard enough on what colleges uniquely add to the educational mix. A stronger sense of identity would, I think, have enabled us to set a direction, rather than being blown in whatever direction a new minister might think is a good idea. It would also have allowed us to put the case for colleges in an even more cogent way. This endeavour is at the core of what I hope to achieve in my next role as the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) Professor of FE and Skills at University College London (Institute of Education). Martin Doel is the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.