A future with more freedom than people would wish for?

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Ian Nash and Colin Forrest survey the real issues behind the speeches and breakout sessions at the 2013 AoC annual conference in Birmingham

Leaders gathering at the Association of Colleges Annual Conference in Birmingham were more stoical than they have been for years. There was greater resilience, with little or no mention of money throughout – hardly surprising, given the cuts. As Ewart Keep, Professor of Education, Training and Skills at Oxford University, told them, funding for adult learning will have been slashed by 55% over eight years come 2018, whoever is in power, and there is no point bleating about it.

Professor Keep also explained in considerable detail how politicians will lose a grip on much of FE and most adult learning, as funding from the centre vanishes; governments will have far less influence over the free markets they are creating. Paradoxically, this will leave colleges in a good position – if they are prepared, can spot opportunities on the horizon and recognise the strength of their expertise. For example, evidence from Keep and many contributors to three days of debate suggests entrepreneurial colleges have the skills and trained experts to help SMEs build sustainable training infrastructures and feed into community learning in ways that too often go “unrecognised, underplayed or disregarded”.

The tone of a ‘can-do’ college culture was set clearly in a session led by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) on implementing recommendations in the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL). It was all there – collaboration with employers, the ‘Teach Too’ approach and developing a VET centre. There were contradictions too, such as the call for urgent action while at the same time, Peter Davies, interim ETF CEO, indicated that the ETF wouldn’t be fully operational until April.

Also, concern was expressed from the conference floor to interim ETF Chair David Hughes over the Foundation returning £7million of unspent money to BIS, despite a pressing need for cash. The real reason for the delay (though the conference wasn’t told this) was that BIS fouled-up big-time in the way it handled the transition from LSIS to ETF. However, as the positive tone for VET developments, emphasising the skills imperative, was repeated in several of the full conference and breakout sessions, this was not the time to seek recriminations. Employer-led vocational skills and apprenticeships was a dominant theme. But how will partnerships operate? As ever, the devil is in the detail.

There was also a slightly more conciliatory and confident attitude towards Ofsted, reflecting a more positive and even emollient tone from the Inspectorate (and ministers) this time around. People were clearly not going to take the nonsense of last year, when the distorted view of college under-achievement was pedalled to a shell-shocked audience. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, blamed the press reporting for getting the message wrong last year. If so, the Ofsted press machine did nothing to stop it – as it could and should have done.

So what has changed? Is it naïve to speculate that the inspectorate now recognises that, with its new remit, it has co-ownership over and accountability for the sector’s improvement? David Russell, the new ETF chief executive, showed he was prepared to challenge aspects of Ofsted’s approach. Debate this year was more robust, around issues such as the role of colleges in provision of work experience and providing skills to help rebuild the economy.

Much more could have been done in challenging Ofsted to produce firmer evidence to back its judgments. A breakout session drew attention to the plethora of inspection evaluation data collected by Ofsted – is it time for this to be placed in the public domain? Professor Robert Coe, Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University, questioned head-on [PPTX] the value and effectiveness of Ofsted’s observation and assessment methods but the gauntlet, once thrown down, was never really picked up. Matthew Coffey, Ofsted Director of FE and Skills, had left the building before Coe spoke and the final debate was left to a panel of four principals from colleges graded as outstanding. They were questioned about their ‘journey’ rather than the inspection methodology that could have given clearer perspectives – an opportunity lost. Also, Coe’s critique was that graded observations had potential to be problematic whoever was operating them – a perspective that will have proved embarrassing for the leaders of some of the subsequent breakout sessions who will have reaped success in what was being suggested as a rather dubious facet.

Too little action: too many unanswered questions

But it’s nowhere near the embarrassment ministers will have felt during the mauling they received over the state of the careers service. Michele Sutton, AoC President, spoke for virtually the whole sector when she described the provision of careers information, advice and guidance (IAG) under the Coalition government as “nothing less than appalling” and anything but impartial. Sutton called for urgent action to give colleges direct access to school pupils. Her message was reinforced by Sam Ball, who won the EEF most outstanding first-year Apprentice while on a four-year scheme with MBDA Systems. Sam spoke of “fierce resistance” from her teachers, when she decided not to go to university, and urged all apprentices to engage with the newly-established Industry Apprenticeship Council.

And if ministers weren’t squirming enough at this stage, the contribution of Toni Pearce (the first NUS president to come from FE) also highlighted the IAG deficit and made a passionate plea – reviving the spirit of 1970s feminism – for college leaders to foster and develop a different kind of leadership especially involving women leaders.

When it came to the politicians themselves, messages from the hall were either polite or variations on “a plague on all your houses”. A formidable line-up of Vince Cable, Matthew Hancock (Minister of State for FE), Liam Byrne (Shadow HE Minister) and Tristram Hunt (Shadow Education Secretary) made all the usual promises (including £330m in 2016-17, through Local Growth Fund, for capital investment in skills – but with considerable LEP strings attached).

However, despite what appeared to be radically different offerings from the three parties, it soon became clear that in practice they were all pretty well the same – basically a choice between regulation under Labour or accountability under the Coalition. Like pigs and men in Orwell’s Animal Farm, you couldn’t spot the difference. Even what looked like a radical upgrade of Apprenticeships under Labour proposals was soon seen to be little more than a rebadging of Coalition Apprenticeships and Traineeships. Labour’s Task Force strategy paper, Transforming Further Education (published at this conference, and the core of Hunt’s speech) added up to little more than just whipping colleges to become elite technical institutions – a badge to be won through UKCES assessment, giving them the right to teach off-the-job elements of apprenticeships and award the Tech Bacc proposed by Labour.

Martin Doel, the AoC Chief Executive, responded with his usual urbane politeness in response to Labour’s proposals. “Colleges already provide high-quality vocational provision, so it will be interesting to see how this can be enhanced via these proposed new institutions,” he said. He then really struck a chord when he used the metaphor of “trying to boil the ocean” – a task that is palpably too big ever to be achieved. He said: “When trying to do everything, you are unlikely to achieve anything that is long-standing or measurable. It seems to me that government tries to boil the ocean about every five years in FE.” So there was a strong appeal to politicians to “get off our backs” and to allow for evolution rather than successively failing revolutions. Of course, if the Ewart Keep scenario comes true, the politicians will be off the backs of FE and its leaders, and so will the money. Then, the only way if things really go awry will be to become a sponsored Wonga College.

Finally, there was a terrific debate, too, around “Do colleges train too many hairdressers for the labour market?” – triggered by the recent Local Government Association report castigating colleges for that ‘mistake’. Caileen Hargrave, UK Head of Education for IBM, floored the industry critics and left the packed hall in stunned but delighted silence when he said: “They are excellent! We take hairdressers into business intelligence because they have the transferable skills we are looking for.” Research for the AoC Conference suggested hairdressing was a leading source of many of the transferable skills said by business to be in short supply. What was so good about this was that there was a real air of ebullience and confidence from an audience that was clearly getting fed up with the nay-sayers and bleaters.

Maybe in times of austerity FE folk feel there is nothing to lose. There were strong feelings, too, that politicians were waking up to the fact that without the FE colleges, there would be no-one to provide. Then, of course, there is the little fact that we are 18 months from a general election, so politicians must start being nice to people – even those in colleges.

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