Secret Lecturer: New Year politics, funding and a daylight sandwich

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One year gone, another starting. Brexit on March 29 (who would bet on that?); a general spending review in the spring to solve our funding problems (in our dreams?); and already a government backtracking on its election promises to streamline apprenticeship applications and subsidise apprentices’ often crippling travel costs. You think this will be a quiet term? There seems enough potential fallout from just these three issues to fill college agendas till December.

But as always there are glimmers of hope amid resigned smiles in our staff room about impossible challenges we’ve overcome in the past and those we’ll take head-on this year. 

‘Love our colleges’: a base to build on 

The good news is the strong support our and other colleges gave to the Love our Colleges lobby of Parliament last October, drawing more than 3,000 staff, students and other supporters to Westminster to spell out to MPs the massive issue of FE funding and why it’s so important to support colleges doing what they do - supplying the vocational skills to keep UK plc afloat. 

Influenced directly or not by the campaign, education secretary Damian Hinds signalled the government’s intent a few weeks later to introduce new higher level 4 and 5 technical qualifications in areas such as engineering and digital, and thus offering top quality training for school leavers. It would help people step up a rung in their careers – from, say, cook to chef, bricklayer to construction site supervisor, or aircraft maintenance fitter to engineer.

It’s new year so let’s take the minister at his word - at least for now: “I’m clear that the school that gets a young person onto a higher apprenticeship deserves as much praise as when it gets someone to university . . .  you don’t have to do a degree.”

‘Snobby’ attitudes have to go

Hinds also said the UK had to “lose its ‘snobby’ attitude towards technical education if it wanted to close the skills gap and increase productivity … the default route into skilled roles should no longer simply be an academic one, especially if the UK is to close the productivity gap with other European countries after Brexit.”

I know, as always, ‘government plans’ can sound good but beg the question of adequate funding. The AoC suggested at its annual conference in November that funding would at least be ‘fairly predictable’ this year – there was after all no change in the last budget. 

Unprotected budgets in firing line

Which brings us to the forthcoming public spending review for the next few years due to start this spring and be completed by November. The figures suggest unprotected budgets will suffer small real terms cuts. Guess which sector has the largest unprotected spending budget – education.

However, colleges will hope to benefit from a slackening of the rules on apprenticeship funding. From this April levy-paying employers will be able to transfer up to 25% - not the current 10% - of their levy funds to another employer, meaning more organisations with money to potentially spend with colleges.

Time to live a little

Politics and funding apart, the spring term has to be conquered somehow by all of us in the lecture hall. Sarah Simons, writing in TES, suggests it’s a term to try out new stuff, experiment and live a bit. We should rest assured that FE will always take what’s thrown at it – in this case Brexit or no Brexit; and if our daily January ‘sandwich’ with its oh so thin filling of daylight does nothing new for us, we’ll always get another chance to make our new year mark - there’s always September!

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