This year’s AoC Conference at the ICC in Birmingham fell between two financial statements, both will continue to impact the sector, and neither of which the sector appeared to have much influence over.

Ministerial merry-go-round

Just six weeks ago the Conservatives held their party conference in the same venue and Kit Malthouse had been appointed Education Secretary by Liz Truss. The number of changes in this key post was referenced by many of the keynote speakers, with the current incumbent, Gillian Keegan, being the fifth person to hold the role since Nadim Zahawi addressed last year’s AoC conference.

In her speech to the conference, Keegan emphasised that the Conservatives continue to see T-Levels and Apprenticeships as crucial with emphasis on Higher Level and Degree Apprenticeships.

She then went on to share her three “game changers”: Local skills improvement plans (LSIPs), emphasising that the local element of plans is crucial to their success; Institutes of Technology; and excellent teaching in FE, reminding the conference that the government is increasing investment in FE so that colleges can get the staff they need.

The previous day, the Shadow Secretary of State, Bridget Phillipson, told delegates that Labour could not commit to increasing funding for FE until they knew the reality of the situation should they gain power. Labour would, Philipson said, widen the Apprenticeship levy and increase devolution, implement a new national task force called Skills England and ensure that there is a careers advisor in every school and college.

Cost of living crisis weighs heavy

The on-the-ground reality of the cost of living crisis is playing out day-by-day in our colleges, and it was clear that this was very much on the minds of the delegates.

AoC Chief Executive David Hughes highlighted that not only do colleges now face inflationary pressures on costs such as heating and lighting but leaders are also concerned about the welfare of their staff and learners, with budgetary pressures limiting the options for colleges to respond.

Some Colleges have begun opening warm banks, and many are seeking practical ways to help their staff and learners through what is expected to be a difficult winter.

Qualification reform

With qualification reform starting to more widely affect providers at level 3, a phrase that stood out was “beware of unintended consequences”.

The pace of change from what will become legacy qualifications at Level 3 and below to the new world risks leaving some behind.

One College Principal alluded to the fact that not just colleges but parents and learners are not taking as quickly to the reform as they are “High Risk”. This is a concern when looking at the options that will be presented to learners in only two and a half years.

Broadening this out to include adult learning and the structure of these new qualifications for adults, delegates felt that flexibility and bitesize options would be needed so as not to alienate adults, and that this will be vital to the Green agenda and the turnaround of the economy.

There were promising green shoots around a mixed vocational qualification and news that a number of the Level 2 qualifications currently are close to where they need to be.

When details of the level 2 assessment components and processes are released, that will clear the muddy waters somewhat and enable medium- and long-term planning to begin.

It is great to have an ambitious policy, and we strive for continuous improvement in qualification development, however, driving fast down a winding road that is difficult to navigate, we should all heed that Principal’s warning about unintended consequences.

LSIPs are here to stay

One area of reform that is here to stay is local skills improvement plans (LSIPs). With these featuring as one of the Secretary of State’s three “game changers” and with the opposition also committed to taking the policy forward, providers can engage with LSIPs with confidence.

Discussions around their implementation did highlight some issues, such as the inconsistency in approach between different LSIP areas, the need to reduce bureaucracy to enable a swifter response to meet employer needs and the tension when the skills needs identified by local devolved authorities don’t match those being commissioned via LSIPs.

Despite these issues, it was clear that everyone involved agreed that LSIPs have potential and those involved needed to work together to ensure there was synergy in the approach rather than fragmentation.

Collaboration and celebration

Despite some doom and gloom, the conference once again reminded us of the fantastic work colleges do and the positive impact this has on individuals and the wider communities that colleges serve.

During the conference, success stories were shared and celebrated, highlighting the amazing work of colleagues across the sector, going above and beyond, showcasing examples of collaborations and best practices, and making plans to support each other during the expected challenging times ahead.

It was also wonderful to celebrate and share our recent success at the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) awards with our friends and peers in the FE sector. Gateway Qualifications proudly displayed our two awards, Innovation of the Year and Awarding Organisation of the Year, on our exhibition stand.

Colleges strive to improve equality and diversity

There were many success stories across the conference of college staff and students working together to develop inclusive curriculums and learning environments. There was a theme of staff and students being equal partners in this, with learning working both ways to ensure different voices are heard when tackling underrepresentation and exclusion, focusing on learners informing colleges about what is most important to them.

A key example was the brilliant work colleges have done to quickly adapt to support Ukrainian refugees with ESOL courses and other learning. This support was swift and benefitted from the College response across the last two years in supporting Syrian and Afghanistan refugees. Over 50 colleges have enrolled Ukrainian students of varying ages, with Eastleigh College Assistant Principal Peter Jodrell talking candidly about the quick response Eastleigh College faced in June 2022.

Within five days of their arrival in the UK, Eastleigh College had put on bespoke ESOL provision for Ukrainian learners. This focussed on ESOL, ICT, learner support and skills for living in the UK.

Of course, there have been challenges, but the outstanding response by the sector in the face of considerable constraints on resources and staffing is remarkable and another sign of how wonderful the FE sector is.

All in all, it was great to reunite with colleagues old and new; it was clear that everyone is very passionate about the education sector and loves the fantastic work our Colleges do day in and day out.

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