Edge report concludes that FE has opportunity to redefine itself and negotiate a new government funding deal to secure its future

According to Our Plan for FE, a report published by the Edge Foundation today, 21st April 2020, Further Education (FE) has a golden opportunity to secure a key role in the country’s future. Against a backdrop of a changing economy, growing skills shortages, Brexit and now the corona crisis, the FE sector urgently needs to define a clear and positive way forward following a period of policy confusion and inconsistency. Now is the time for this to happen. 

Edge’s report suggests that with a lack of stability in both policy and funding, the FE sector has struggled to dictate the direction of its own future. Its high time colleges and learning providers receive some attention, investment and backing from the government but this is not enough.

Neil Bates, Chair, Edge Foundation said,

“Ministers publicly recognise the critical role that Further Education plays in our local communities and in providing the technical and occupational skills needed by business to compete in an increasingly global economy. In the past the rhetoric has not been matched by a proper investment in the sector. In a post pandemic, post Brexit world, our education and skills system will be at the front line of social and economic recovery. We will need our colleges and learning providers more than ever and we need to invest in them, empower and trust them and replace over regulation with a commitment to a shared national mission.”

Edge suggest a new deal is needed based on a fresh vision for FE that has a clear and renewed purpose. The FE sector should be at the centre of our economic plan, delivering the high quality technicians who will power future economic growth.

The report includes contributions from academics and stakeholders across the FE sector and across the four nations. It includes case studies from colleges that are already successfully delivering innovative practise across the UK.

There have been diverging policy and funding reforms across the four nations of the UK that England can learn from, such as the more managed approach in Scotland, and colleges as arm’s length bodies in Northern Ireland and increasingly Wales too. Meanwhile the smaller islands reinforce the opportunities for colleges to play an anchor role and show what can be achieved where they are given more freedom to do so.

Key points from the report:

  • A continuous decline in funding both 16-18 and post-18 has caused significant challenges for the FE sector: Colleges are facing a staff recruitment and retention crisis reinforced by the increased marketisation of the sector; 
  • There are no prescribed levels of education qualification or professional status required to teach in further education in England creating uncertainty about appropriate and sufficient staff requirements;
  • The breadth of provision offered alongside a stretched workforce often means FE providers take on more than they have the capacity to handle;
  • Class sizes have increased and learning hours per student decreased to compensate for cuts in funding.
  • Mergers have attempted to respond to funding and governance challenges across the sector, but the emerging evidence to date suggests this had limited success.
  • Colleges should focus on collaboration, forming collaborative groupings across geographical regions, specialisms and leading local education groups while bringing together other providers including schools and higher education institutions. 

Further research is desperately needed. Edge support the Social Mobility Commission’s call for a What Works Centre for FE which recommends that government should invest £20 million over five years to help establish the evidence and research led centre.  

Response from the sector

David Hughes Chief Executive, Association of Colleges

“Today’s report from The Edge Foundation is an important contribution to the sector and colleges, the FE sector educates and trains more than 2.2 million young people and adults in skills vital to the future of the economy. Their work is even more important than ever, given the uncertainty we all face as the world battles against coronavirus. Colleges have always played a vital civic role alongside their teaching and training, but the current crisis has highlighted this other role they serve, that often goes unnoticed.    

“The recommendations set out a clear and useful way forward for a reinvigorated system. One that would allow colleges to be at the forefront of their communities and able to deliver the strong economy and thriving communities that the country will need as we look to the future after the crisis is over.”

Lewis Cooper, Director of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the role of colleges is more critical than ever in mitigating the challenges that people, employers and communities face. Colleges across the UK are working in innovative ways to sustain learning, help vulnerable people, and support the NHS. And so it is more important than ever to ensure that we have education and skills systems across the four nations that empower colleges to continue to transform lives in every community. 

“Through their response to the pandemic, colleges have shown they are a critical part of the national infrastructure. This is an important starting point for our work. As the Commission reflects on what we can learn during this time, we are working to make clear recommendations later this year as we together create a system where colleges are truly at the heart of public policy across the UK.”

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