Funding cuts and mergers have dominated further education in recent years. Of the 450 colleges in England at incorporation in 1993, only 243 remained in July 2016. Many of last year’s mergers were prompted by the early waves of Area Reviews, which aim to make colleges financially sustainable.
2017 will see many more mergers, as the recommendations of the currently ongoing and recently completed Area Review steering groups are implemented. The total numbers of mergers won’t be known until all the Area Reviews are completed in March this year, but in July 2016 Sir David Collins, then FE Commissioner, said he expected the number of FE colleges to drop by one third.
So those working in FE colleges can expect another year of mergers, restructures and the associated stress. The pressure of working in a college going through the Area Review process was eloquently articulated by ATL members’ response to the House of Commons Select Committee’s inquiry. Many spoke of the “fear that the Area Review will lead to more redundancies of staff”.
The impact of major qualification reforms imposed by the last government will also continue to be felt in FE colleges during 2017. The requirement for young people to achieve a GCSE C grade in maths and English is proving a major challenge as colleges struggle to recruit teachers in these areas.
With young people taking the new and more demanding maths and English GCSEs for the first time this year, some have estimated a huge rise in resits in colleges from September 2017. An added burden to the already creaking maths and English departments in colleges. There have however, been hints from the Department for Education that this policy might change – fingers crossed this happens as the current situation it is very damaging for the learners.
Besides these hangovers from previous years, the FE sector can expect several new government policies to become reality during 2017. The most pressing is the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, payable from April this year at 0.5% by employers with payrolls over £3 million. The levy, expected to raise £12 billion over the course of this parliament, is intended to encourage employers to take on apprentices, as the amount paid can be recouped for apprenticeship training.
Colleges will feel the impact of the levy in two ways. Firstly, government has stated loudly and clearly that it expects colleges to seek funding from employers via the apprenticeship levy. How much of the levy will actually be passed to colleges for apprenticeship training is an unknown at this stage. There have been predictions that many employers will regard the levy simply as a tax and not attempt recoup monies to fund apprenticeship training. In addition, colleges are currently unable to identify levy paying companies, making it very difficult to proactively chase this money.
Secondly, as large employers themselves, the majority colleges will be required to pay the levy. As with all other employers, colleges can reclaim the money to fund apprentice training. But this opportunity has a 24-month expiry date before the money disappears, so it will be necessary for colleges to act quickly. Clearly there is still plenty of work to do around better informing employers if the levy acts as it should to increase the number of apprenticeships.
April 2017 will also see the launch of the new Institute for Apprenticeships that will take responsibility for many oversight functions around apprenticeships. In addition, it will also oversee the 15 new technical education routes announced in the government’s Skills Plan last summer. As with the development of new apprenticeship standards, employers will take centre stage with technical education, forming panels to oversee the design of the 15 routes. Controversially, the Skills Plan intends for the 20,000 qualifications currently available to be replaced by a single awarding body, and one level 2 and one level 3 qualification for each route.
The timetable for the Skills Plan is tight, and so, while not of immediate concern, colleges will need to start planning for its implementation. Delivery is to begin in 2019, with all 15 routes launched by 2022. Similarly, this year colleges must consider how they will respond to devolved adult education budgets. While some devolution deals have been published, and November’s budget announced that London’s adult education budget will be devolved by 2019/20, many areas are still in the dark. This does not make planning easy for colleges, so let’s hope for more clarity on devolution during 2017.
So it will be yet another busy year for FE. Dealing with the here and now of Area Review implementation, maths and English resits and the much-anticipated apprenticeship levy. And then the necessary business of planning for the huge changes looming just over the horizon.