Key issues were coming to a head. The chancellor had refused to pay FE teachers the same salary increase as school teachers. FE staff pension payments looked likely to take a huge hike, plus there were reports that the government was seeking yet more FE cuts as the autumn Budget loomed.
Then, just days before the Institute for Fiscal Studies launched its inaugural annual education review, came an ‘enough is enough’ moment - the announcement by the Association of Colleges, backed by the NUS and college staff unions and employers, of a mass lobby of parliament during the first ever national Colleges Week This was organised to push for desperately needed funding and raise the sector’s profile just a few days before the Budget.
The lobby, which attracted principals, students, employers and college staff at all levels, created contacts with scores of sympathetic MPs at Westminster and across the country, who by the end of the week were made only too aware of the stark statistics of the IFS report - within 10 years FE funding had been slashed by 30%, funding per student was 8% down, and 23,000 staff and one million adult learners had been lost. Why were FE teachers being paid on average £7,000 pa less than their peers n schools?
The successful Colleges Week exercise under the ‘Love our Colleges’ banner was repeated in May and another is scheduled for October 14-18 this year, just days before the next Budget and Boris Johnson’s current prediction that the UK will leave the EU on October 31.
The lobbying worked - in January the FE sector at last gained a Commons debate on whether funding should be increased. Maybe the lobbyists’ message even got through to Downing Street, given Teresa May’s recent legacy-building attempts to persuade the Johnson government to raise FE funding levels. At the same time Johnson was promising more funding during the Tory party leadership campaign. Perhaps the recent and forthright Augur report on post-18 education and funding played a role. Time will tell.
Funding pressures affected every part of college life, which as ever was the epitome of flexibility. More than 20 new principals and CEOs were appointed by colleges in the first three months of this year; last year it was over 50. Retirement accounted for some, but many others left to work in sectors not under such severe financial constraints. Applicants were fewer in number.
Fortunately, new leadership courses for principals, CEOs and chairs of governors partly sponsored by the government and run by the Education Trust Foundation at Oxford’s Saïd Business School proved popular, going some way towards improving succession planning in the sector.
College insolvency laws took effect in January, emphasising the impact of continued funding cuts on colleges’ ability to function properly. In May Hadlow College was the first institution to be placed in ‘education administration’ - if more funding is on the way, hopefully it will be one of the last.
But despite lack of funding overshadowing so much work in the sector, the past year still witnessed significant initiatives and changes. Among them, the advent of T-levels saw the axe fall on over 160 level 3 BTec courses deemed to overlap existing A-levels and future T-levels.
The GCSE resit pass rate for maths and English actually doubled to reach 21% within the past four years.
And money was somewhere found and pledged to fund 21 colleges to become Centres of Excellence for teaching basic maths, and three colleges to become Centres for Excellence in special educational needs in FE and Training.
The government admitted its goal of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 would not be met. Reasons for this included many employers using apprenticeship levy funding to develop loyal and trusted existing workers rather than risk taking on unproven school-leavers.
In addition, smaller non-levy-paying businesses, often running on tight profit margins, found the levy funds available were not enough to make taking on apprentices affordable. In fact, a recent survey showed manufacturers almost all wanted the levy reformed; 20% wanted it scrapped.
Then right at the end of this academic year, there was massive change at the Department for Education (DfE). In a Johnson cabinet reshuffle Damian Hinds was replaced by state-educated Gavin Williamson as education secretary.
Interestingly, Williamson is taking on the skills and apprenticeship brief previously held by Anne Milton, who will missed by many in the sector after resigning as skills minister following a productive two years in the role.
She, it was, who gave an in-depth online video interview with the Association of Colleges’ chief executive David Hughes, admitted she’d wait a year after T-levels came in before deciding whether to let her own children take them, and said she was forever banging on the Treasury’s door for more FE funding.
The question now is will Williamson’s FE remit mean the sector’s needs are rising up the agenda or will merely get submerged again beneath all the other burning issues facing the DfE? Again time will tell.