Degrees of uncertainty
While questions remain about the government's vision for general FE and sixth form colleges, changes are afoot, says Daniel Cremin. He looks at the likely direction of travel for the post-16 sector.
Most readers will already be well aware of the vigour with which the new Department for Education (DfE) has sought to reform and expand the academies programme.
What is less clear is the likely direction of travel that the new coalition government will take with post-16, and specifically sixth form colleges and general further education colleges, in relation to autonomy, flexibility and funding issues.
As the Liberal-Conservative coalition continues to bed in, a clearer picture will incrementally emerge over the next few months, against the backdrop of both the emergency budget and the autumn spending review.
At the moment, however, important questions remain about shape of the qualifications and funding landscape that will underpin school, college and work-based learning for 14-19 year olds and adult FE and work-based learners.
The new administration has made it clear that it sees scope for a vibrant qualifications market. There is likely to be greater freedom for schools and colleges to offer IGCSEs, BTECs, pre-apprenticeship NVQs, Pre-Us and IB programmes with state funding, in contrast to the Labour government's goal of channelling funding through four main pathways at 14-19.
In addition to scrapping phase 4 diplomas, funding for sub-regional 14-19 diploma partnerships will be reviewed and potentially scaled back. The message the government has given as it announces the closure of the QCDA is that the development of new 14-19 vocational programmes will be led by sector skills councils, employer representative groups and awarding bodies.
At the headline level the sixth form colleges have been broadly admired by ministers in both departments and parliamentarians across the political spectrum.
Very often Conservative MPs and peers in particular emphasise, as one of their key sources of strength, the ability of colleges to set high thresholds for entry onto programmes in terms of GCSE and equivalent level qualification achievement.
Michael Gove has made it clear that the independence of sixth form colleges will be fully respected, and that any reforms to enhance the professional autonomy of leaders and teaching professionals in further education and schools will be matched with corresponding arrangements for the sixth form college sector.
While DfE will unambiguously be the lead sponsor and champion of the sector, the ability of colleges to work in close partnership with further education colleges and universities to offer tailored adult learning and higher education in addition to their core 16-19 activities will continue unhindered.
Prior to the general election, John Hayes, the minister of state responsible for skills and further education, spoke of the necessity for central and local government to respect the sixth form sector's unique character and tradition. He stressed the need to avoid at all costs the mistake of conflating them with school sixth forms because, in his view they are "more wide ranging in the diet that they offer - both in content and in the kind of students that they typically teach".
Likewise, despite BIS announcing the withdrawal of core funding for the learning and skills sector's Bureaucracy Reduction Group and the Further Education Reputation Strategy Group, John Hayes is determined to live up to his promise in opposition to be a champion for greater esteem and frontline freedom for the further education sector.
Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have been highly critical in recent years of what they saw as command-led rather than demand-led vision at the heart of Labour's national skills strategy.
A commitment to creating thousands of additional 'real apprenticeship' places over the next few years sat at the heart of the education and skills section of the Conservative 2010 manifesto; the Liberal Democrats also favour apprenticeships as a high-status learning pathway.
The coalition government's first skills strategy can be expected to reallocate a substantial proportion of funding previously channelled to Train to Gain into schemes for funding for more 18-24 apprenticeship places, particularly in STEM and advanced manufacturing sectors, but also towards funding 14-19 college-based courses and pre-apprenticeship training.
Prior to the general election, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats spoke of FE colleges being able to shift money between budgets to creatively respond to local employer and adult community learning needs.
Therefore it is extremely likely that they will not face the same degree of restrictions about which individual qualifications, short courses and individual portfolio units can be funded through the separate employer-responsive and adult learner responsive funding pools.
The new government also accepts the need to reduce the "galaxy of oversight, inspection and accreditation" and excessive fragmentation of funding, which were identified in the 2005 Foster report as key burdens on FE colleges.
The government has already announced reforms to remove 'outstanding' FE colleges from compulsory inspection unless performance data drops significantly, matching recent announcements in the school sector.
It is also expected that the Framework for Excellence, which applies to school and college sixth forms as well as general FE colleges and training providers will be subject to early review over the next 6-12 months to assess its viability across multiple sectors.
Both parties believe that the Skills Funding Agency should be replaced by a streamlined national funding body, with a mission to be primarily a national funding allocator similar to HEFCE rather than a heavily interventionist executive agency.
What is less clear right now is how the coalition government will reconcile the differing positions on the local authority commissioning roles of education and skills for 16-19 year olds, which the Liberal Democrats strongly support and the Conservatives opposed.
This dilemma and the future of the Young People's Learning Agency - which has responsibility for 16-19 funding, academies and managing the educational maintenance allowance - will be key issues that ASCL will be engaging on over the course of 2010.
Raising participation age
Although no official announcement has been made as this is written, it seems unlikely that the coalition parties will retain in its current form the Raising Expectations agenda, which introduced legislation to raise the compulsory education participation age to 18 by 2015.
Michael Gove and other Conservative frontbenchers have highlighted concerns about the nature of the Raising Expectations reforms, which in their view was largely a mechanistic realignment of responsibility rather than a package of radical measures to tackle the key causal factors of England's growing NEET problem.
The Liberal Democrats were far more clear-cut in the party manifesto about their opposition to what they viewed as an illiberal attempt to potentially criminalise vulnerable young people.
It is likely to be a question of months rather than weeks before a detailed picture emerges of the new government's intended direction of travel on sixth form college autonomy, capital projects, equalisation of schools and college sixth form funding.
Chris Tyler, ASCL's colleges specialist agrees that there is a real window of opportunity to shape the new government's priorities and says: "It's vitally important, now more than ever, that members working in the sixth form college and further education sectors are feeding in insights, evidence and case studies to inform ASCL's national engagement."
Given the advent of the coalition government and the promise of a post-bureaucratic age, the need for sixth form and FE colleges to demonstrate how they collaborate effectively with the wider family of local education providers, while retaining and utilising their autonomy, will be more significant than ever.
Daniel Cremin is ASCL's adviser for public policy and stakeholder engagement and works for for Bellenden Public Affairs.
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