By Andy Forbes, Head of Development, Lifelong Education Institute
Decades of constant changes to education policy have had a disproportionate effect on Further Education, as compared to the environment facing secondary schools and universities. As the measures introduced in last year’s Skills and Post-16 Education Act start to take effect, Andy Forbes takes stock of the challenges facing Further Education colleges today.
There’s no doubt that the profile and status of General FE Colleges has risen steadily over the past two decades. From being labelled the “Cinderella sector” – an image attributed to Ken Baker, then Secretary of State for Education, back in 1989 – there is now an unprecedented consensus across the political spectrum about the importance of the FE sector in delivering modern industrial skills for the UK’s economic growth.
But while the image may have transformed, the tough environment in which FE operates has not. In fact, in many ways it’s got worse; while there’s a far higher number of demands now being heaped on the sector, funding for delivery has stagnated and declined. “Do more, but do it for less!” appears to be the mantra of recent governments.
The Augar Review of Post-18 education memorably cited the evidence of extraordinary policy volatility in relation to FE: “Norris and Adam (2017) have described how further education has been unusually subject to policy churn, with, since the 1980s, 28 major pieces of legislation bearing on FE, 48 secretaries of state with responsibility for the sector and many agencies, such as the Further Education Funding Council, the Learning and Skills Council and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills coming and going.” (Augar Report, p122)
Augar’s report was published in May 2019. Since then – perhaps ironically stimulated by the report’s far-reaching recommendations – this churn has continued unabated. We have had no less than six Education Secretaries, and a similar number of Ministers with responsibility for FE & Skills, over the past four years.
Since 2019 we’ve also had an avalanche of new policy initiatives, by my count upwards of twenty. This includes the creation of Institutes of Technology, the rollout of T Levels, introduction of Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs), the move from Apprenticeship Frameworks to Standards with compulsory End Point Assessment, the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, Local Skills Improvement Plans, Ofsted inspection changes to reflect the requirement for colleges to address local skills needs, Kick Start, Boot Camps, Flexi-Apprenticeships, the end of Traineeships, launch of Multiply, free Level 3 adult courses through the National Skills Fund, the SEND Review and White Paper, qualification reforms for vocational Level 3 courses, closely followed by the same for Levels 1-2, the implementation of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, and the re-classification of the whole FE sector from private to public sector. All against the background of a pandemic and associated lockdowns, and now a major cost of living crisis.
Schools and universities have also gone through significant changes, but nowhere near as many. In terms of qualifications, GCSEs were introduced in 1986 and A Levels in 1951. University degrees date back to the 13th century, and their structure hasn’t changed a great deal in the past century. In contrast, many vocational qualifications are recent arrivals on the education scene. Those of longest standing and most familiar to the public – BTECs and City & Guilds – are amongst those facing the chop in the latest manifestation of policy mania.
One of the reasons why FE has always struggled with its image is that colleges do a wide variety of different things. “FECs have become providers of everything to everyone”, as the Augar report pithily put it. (Augar, p. 124). Most operate on six fronts simultaneously, which is why so many different policy and funding changes affect them. As military experts would tell you, fighting on six fronts makes for a tough and complex battle – mission impossible, even. Let’s briefly look at each in turn.
1. 16-18 year olds
At the advanced level – Level 3 – the introduction of T Levels has proved an enormous challenge, especially with the requirement for nine weeks of work experience. And the DfE’s determination to bulldoze any alternative vocational courses out of the way to clear the ground for T Levels has meant a continued threat to the stability and success of Applied General courses, BTECs, City & Guilds and others, which have been so successful in offering alternatives to students who prefer experiential learning and have thus played a big part in widening the participation of young people in higher education.
The situation at Level 1-2, still a vital pathway for those who didn’t do well at school, is equally fraught, with the T Level Foundation Year designed to prepare them for advanced study floundering, and the prospect of another round of the DfE’s misconceived campaign to cull qualifications. Meanwhile, as colleges try and juggle A Levels, T Levels and Applied Generals, funding for these students has flatlined, falling by 14% until 2019/20, and set to still be 5% down even with the recent increases. Since most colleges rely on this cohort for the bulk of their income, this is a huge headache.
2. Adult Skills
The second most important element of FE income, the Adult Education Budget (AEB), has suffered an even greater decimation. Total adult skills spending in 2024/25 will be 22% below 2009/10 levels, and classroom-based adult education will be 40% lower. On top of this, the system is now becoming ever more complicated and fragmented because of the steady pace of devolution of AEB to Mayoral Combined Authorities, each with the ability to set different priorities and considerable flexibility over funding eligibility rules.
Before Brexit, adult education funding – especially for the most disadvantaged – was available via the European Social Fund and other EU programmes. Most of that has now evaporated into a cloud of national funding initiatives which most of us have only just started to get our heads round. Those colleges mainly dependent on adult funding have predictably been plunged into financial crisis.
The average English college trains about 1,000 apprentices a year. Not a big income stream, but vital to meeting the skills needs of local employers, especially SMEs. But complex bureaucracy, constant changes to course structures, funding rates and assessment rules – coupled with the increasing proportion of levy funding being gobbled up by degree apprenticeships, and recently the widespread shortages of industry-expert staff – have made this harder and harder to deliver.
At the same time, the proportion of Level 2 apprenticeships, a vital alternative route for school leavers and adults trapped in low-skill jobs, has dropped from over 60% five years ago to under 30% last year. Apart from its negative impact on social mobility this is yet another big blow to hard-pressed college budgets, since Level 2 is often their bread and butter.
4. Higher Education.
Most General FE Colleges deliver university-level courses, and many have invested in new buildings to create Higher Education Centres in “cold-spot” areas. The relatively generous funding rate under the student loan system makes this a lucrative area to get into, but competition is fierce, especially as well-resourced universities move into Level 3 courses, under the guise of Foundation Year courses, not just Level 4 and above.
In most colleges, HE enrolments have stagnated or declined in recent years. The cost of meeting the overblown bureaucracy of the Office for Students’ regulatory regime, combined with drastic shortages of teaching staff, means that many colleges are struggling to stay in the game. This is already having a chilling effect on the development of the new Higher Technical Qualifications and threatens to undermine the flagship Institutes of Technology initiative.
Although it gets little publicity, most colleges deliver a large amount of provision for Students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, providing a vital service for individual learners and their families. The labyrinthine bureaucracy associated with Education, Health & Care Plans (EHCPs), the huge delays and bottlenecks created by under-resourced secondary schools and under-staffed Local Authority teams have made this a nightmare to deliver successfully.
Recognising this, the government’s long-delayed SEND White Paper has at last come out, but has created even more uncertainty over how proposed future systems and funding will work, while appearing to do little to address the underlying issue of chronic underfunding of the whole special needs education system.
Finally, since the passage of the Skills Act into law, another front has opened up, with colleges now legally obliged – unlike schools and universities – to work with local employers to address local skills needs through their curriculum offer. Colleges may benefit from new training opportunities at some point in the future, but there’s no funding for the lengthy engagement needed with local partners to develop Local Skills Improvement Plans. And now Ofsted have weighed in by introducing a specific requirement to inspect how well FE colleges are doing this. Yet another big demand on colleges buckling under the strain of trying to multi-task.
Like Boxer in Animal Farm, FE colleges are trying to work harder to make the government’s skills revolution a success. But trying to fight on six fronts with inadequate ammunition is probably beyond the capability of even the the greatest Napoleons of our day. College leaders are now walking a daily tightrope, with any slight slip on any one of the front lines leading to immediate financial injury.
The artillery bombardment of new initiatives continues relentlessly. Colleges are hunkered down in the trenches, mostly just trying to survive, and if they’re very lucky and brilliantly managed, maybe gain a little bit of ground. So, hats off to college Principals and senior teams. They are the unsung heroes of England’s struggle to develop a skills system fit for a 21st century economy.
Andy Forbes is Head of Development for the Lifelong Education Institute.