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NEWS: Overhaul the English post-16 education system through the upcoming FE White Paper to secure a better future for young people, adults and businesses

18 November 2020


As more evidence of the biting pandemic effects on young people and adults comes to light, the new report from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future calls for colleges and skills to be made central to COVID recovery plans in England. Last week, the latest unemployment rate revealed the number of people out of work was at its highest since 2016 - at 4.8%, with thousands of others worried about losing their jobs in the coming months.

Currently, the post-16 education and skills system is not set up to empower colleges to offer the full range of opportunities needed for people to reach their potential, especially for the 50% that do not go to university. Nor does the system enable colleges to best meet the needs of businesses facing enormous change and challenges.

Today’s report, The English College of the Future, sets out recommendations, that if implemented through the government’s upcoming FE White paper, will put employer voice at the heart of the system to help people find the right courses or qualifications to transform their lives. This requires sufficient funding to support upskilling and retraining as jobs change. Those made redundant will gain skills for good jobs, learning will be opened up to people on benefits and those in insecure work, and businesses will have advice and support to find and develop the skilled people they need as we recover from the ongoing pandemic.

Central recommendations for the anticipated FE White Paper to create the post-16 education and skills system needed for the future include:

  1. Introducing a legal duty on colleges to establish networks across appropriate economic geographies – which must be matched by a duty on all other post-16 education providers – to collaborate in the interests of students, communities and the economy.
  2. Forming a cross-departmental ministerial taskforce/ body to oversee a new UK Government 10-year strategy for education and skills to drive the industrial strategy and other priorities, with DFE, BEIS, DWP, MHCLG and others represented, together with employers and other key stakeholders.
  3. Funding colleges to deliver specialised and targeted business support, creating employer “hubs” in key sectors and occupational pathways, especially in digital, construction, engineering, and health and social care. This includes a new, refreshed genuine strategic partnership between colleges and SMEs to get people back into secure employment quickly and drive innovation.
  4. Creating a statutory right to lifelong learning by making lifelong learning accessible and financially viable to all through offering equal loans and grants across further education and higher education so that everyone can access the training they need, no matter where they come from, their circumstance or their background.
  5. Investing in colleges through three-year grant settlements to give colleges the confidence and funding to deliver strategically for people, productivity and place in the economic rebuild.

Comments from commissioners

Amanda Melton CBE, Principal and Chief Executive of Nelson and Colne College Group, and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, said: “Colleges provide skills and training to local people, employers and communities, often in a challenging and continually changing policy and fiscal environment.

“It is essential that the government invests in colleges as essential public assets, and builds a new relationship as strategic and trusted partners, securing relevant high quality learning over all our lives, building the skills England needs in the short and longer term.

“The anticipated FE White Paper will be a vehicle to drive the fundamental systems change needed. But colleges should take a lead role in delivering the transformation required, in the context of the vision for the future and outlined Government reforms.

“This report is a rallying call for colleges. I know we share a collective ambition for the expanded role colleges can and must play in our society and economy. This will require real cultural shifts within the college sector to achieve the Commission’s vision for a collaborative college sector for the future. Colleges will then successfully adopt their lead role as lynchpin of a coherent, connected education and skills system that delivers for our communities and economy.”

Matthew Fell, CBI Chief UK Policy Director and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, said: “With nine in ten workers needing some form of reskilling by 2030, colleges will play a crucial role in delivering the skills vital for firms and individuals to succeed.

“To address skills gaps now and in the future, historic underfunding of the FE sector must end. The English College of the Future highlights how giving colleges the resource and flexibility to partner with business will help close skills gaps, boost people’s life chances and make our economy more competitive.”

Nora Senior CBE, Executive Chair, UK Regions & Ireland, Weber Shandwick, and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, said: “Many employers work closely with colleges every day. They trust them to deliver the skills businesses need and to know what is best for the communities we are situated in. However, the partnership needs to transform from being transactional to strategic.

“What we need now is for the UK government to give English colleges the trust they need and deserve to deliver the skills we need in this uncertain time, and in the future. This means freeing them up from bureaucracy and empowering them to be strategic and agile to labour market needs. The publication of this report is opportune given the challenges faced by businesses in the pandemic. The Commission sets out a roadmap for a much closer working relationship between business and colleges. Business needs to get behind this new approach and make it a two way street.”

Paul Nowak, TUC Deputy General Secretary and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, said: "This report sets out a comprehensive vision for how colleges in England can support a fairer economic recovery and increase access to learning and skills.

"A new collaborative approach that draws on the voices of learners, employers and unions will benefit new learners, businesses, local economies - and wider society. But progress will depend on a better deal for the college workforce. College staff in England have suffered years of cuts, redundancies, limited pay rises and casualisation.

"We urgently need government action to better recognise and reward the efforts of the whole staff team, listen to their ideas and invest in their development."

Lesley Giles, Director of Work Advance and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future said: “As the Covid-19 crisis is increasingly eroding how we live and work, and all we hold dear, it is time to repurpose and rebuild, including in our further education system. Out of the dark, always comes good.

“With increasing social consciousness during the pandemic, this has cemented social cohesion in businesses and local communities and ignited a passion to do more to protect people’s health, the environment, the economy and education. Social distancing has accelerated technology adoption and workplace innovation, and created new forms of partnerships, collaboration and social togetherness to achieve a greater good, unlocking the skills, creativity and innovation of people.

“As the government embarks on education reforms which seeks a wholesale rebalancing between higher and further education, this is creating a perfect storm to put the UK economy on a road to recovery by investing in people and enhancing their skills. That’s why the Commission has developed a long term vision for colleges – colleges at the heart of every community need to be at the centre of any future skills-led growth. Let’s make it happen”

Comments from expert panel members

Robin Ghurbhurun, managing director of FE at Jisc and expert panel member, said: “Our FE sector needs greater support to deliver education that reflects the evolution of the workplace and the emerging skills requirements of our technology-driven age. Colleges have long been under immense financial strain. Strategic funding is now vital to deliver a post-COVID education model that combines face-to-face and online teaching and learning. As the UK’s digital body for lifelong learning, Jisc sees technology-enabled education as fundamental to delivering teaching and learning that is flexible, innovative, and accessible to individual needs. We need to nurture a system in which teaching staff are digitally empowered, and where online content can support the skills needed for the national economy to build back better.”

Comments from supporters and stakeholders

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “This report is a must-read for everyone involved in post-16 education and training. The Commission has worked so hard to reach a consensus with employers, government, students and colleges about the system needed to get the most out of colleges over the coming years. Colleges make an enormous impact now, but with the recommendations in this report implemented, and with the right investment, they can do so much more for people, places and productivity.”

David Gallagher, CEO at NCFE, said: “Positively, the report highlights a new and much clearer vision for colleges at the heart of their communities and playing a central role in boosting productivity. The emerging picture for a networked college infrastructure, with investment in greater specialisation is welcome and must contribute to increased agility and responsiveness in the system. The argument for a statutory right to lifelong learning is well made and long overdue. Lastly, it is also fantastic to see the case being made for investment in our most important resource within the college system, our educators. If we’re serious about a world-class tertiary education system, then we must attract, retain and invest in creating a truly world-class workforce that is equipped to provide transformational learning for every learner.”

Cindy Rampersaud, Senior Vice President for BTEC and Apprenticeships at Pearson, said: “The Independent Commission is right to highlight how central colleges and skills are to COVID recovery plans in England, and to call for the support they need and deserve to enable this. I also welcome their calls for every adult to have the right to lifetime education and training, with colleges better supported to deliver this in every community across the UK. Continuing to upskill throughout our lives is critical to supporting growth at an individual, community and national level. Flexibility, underpinned by a modular approach, will be key to supporting both access and progression for many.”

Helen Higgs, Head of Construction Skills Nuclear New Build, EDF Energy, said: “I welcome the recommendations within the College of the Future report. Colleges are important anchor organisations in their community. We have been proud to partner with Bridgwater and Taunton College to support people to gain the skills necessary to deliver major infrastructure projects like Hinkley Point C and have seen the positive impact these projects have on their communities. I welcome the recommendations to unlock greater flexibilities in the skills system that will enable colleges to become key strategic players in helping achieve productivity gains at new exciting projects such as Sizewell C in the future.”

Marcella M’Rabety, Group Head of Education, Skills and Employment, MAG (Manchester Airports Group), said: “Having the right pipeline of skills and education is central to London Stansted’s long-term strategy, which is why we partnered with Harlow College to create Stansted Airport College, the country’s first dedicated college at any major airport. As this report makes clear, colleges have a pivotal role to play in their communities, and we know employers are eager to develop strong, strategic partnerships with the education and skills system in their region. This system needs to be properly joined up and collaborative to ensure we are able to close the skills gap and offer young people a clear pathway into meaningful careers.”

Dr Sam Parrett OBE, Principal, London South East Colleges, said: “The Independent Commission on the College of the Future (@CollegeComm) report shines a light on the crucial role FE colleges have to play in a skills-led recovery of our economy.

“It is right to acknowledge the role of colleges as anchor institutions and the need for education systems to be more connected locally, creating strong partnerships with local, regional and national employers. Equipping students with the skills and knowledge that employers need is something we have focused on at London South East Colleges for many years and this has never been more relevant than it is now, in the current economic landscape.

“The report also highlights the importance of lifelong learning opportunities, which "must be expanded for the many adults who now need to re-skill. Ensuring high quality vocational and technical skills training is accessible to all will have a clear economic and social impact – transforming lives.

“Colleges need to be recognised and supported via a cohesive national strategy, yet we must maintain the ability to innovate and flex to meet our local and community needs. Closer working with employers and other educators is clearly key to developing relevant curricula and valuable provision for students and it is encouraging to see this theme coming out so strongly in the Commission’s report.

“This report highlights the need for our sector to continue the drive to equip people with the skills they need, which will empower them to succeed personally and help the economy to thrive. Like many colleges, we are already operating at the heart of our local communities and are strongly networked with employers as we work in partnership to achieve these overarching aims.

“Our latest Group strategy focuses on transforming our organisation from ‘just a college’ to a social enterprise, adding quantifiable social value to the communities we support. This mission is intrinsic to the sustainable growth of our economy and as an enabler of social mobility.

“Our hope is that both the Commission and the Government’s impending white paper recognise that there are many good colleges already meeting expectations and fulfilling the ambitions set out in this report. These organisations could (and indeed should) be used as a blueprint for the sector going forward.”