Taking stock: The key challenges for FE

Looking across our conversations, our panel of FE leaders identified the following five strategic challenges for the sector as we emerge from the pandemic.

Sustaining the core business of education and training 

In the initial response to the Covid-19 lockdown, colleges were quick to respond with a shift to distance learning, teaching and remote working. As the sector looks to emerge from the other side of the crisis, there are a number of pressing questions around what the delivery of the core business of education and training will look like in the immediate and longer term. 

Technology has allowed colleges to manage through the initial disruption, it is clear there is an impact on staff and learners operating in this way and an understanding and assessment of this is important. So, while we have enabled learning in the short term, there is work to be done in order to understand the future implications for quality, assessment, curriculum, learner well-being and delivery. 

Estates, technology and the college of the future 

Any shift to virtual or blended learning away from ‘traditional’ modes of in-college delivery throws up into the air the question of what the future FE model will look like. Answering this requires consideration of the limitations and opportunities for digital learning, the impact on learner engagement and the implications for real estate. 

Digital and estates experience and skills are often both lacking in colleges and college boards. These skill deficiencies will need to be addressed if college’s are to capably determine effective and sustainable future strategies. 

Finance: dealing with income volatility 

Colleges exist to support learning, but they cannot do that unless there is visibility and confidence about where future revenue will come from. There is certainly verbal commitment from the government to the sector and the role it will play in the recovery of the UK Gavin Williamson speech. Last week, a Department for Education spokesperson also claimed that the government are “providing an additional £400m for college and sixth forms this year and £1.5bn to upgrade college buildings and facilities”, as well as additional funding for traineeships

Today, many colleges are linked closely with their local businesses, national programmes and even international interests. The income diversity this delivers, with less reliance on direct funding, is now seen as a vulnerability. As the impact of Covid-19 is felt by business and the local economy, college finances will suffer. Nick Juba is very much aware of this financial uncertainty for those colleges who have engaged more closely with the commercial sector, and the government’s commissioner for further education, Richard Atkins, admitted last week that around 30 to 40 colleges are currently “at risk of running out of cash” without extra support.

There may be an uptick in individuals who will seek to re-train, upskill or enhance their education, seeking full time or part time college support but it is clear that dealing with future income volatility and the impact on finances will be a key driver of future change. 

Leadership, resilience and wellbeing 

The past few months have put unprecedented pressure on teams across the sector. College leaders talk with pride about their staff and how they have responded positively to that change and, through supporting the valuable contribution to the NHS and vulnerable communities, their college has rediscovered the “notion of the community college”. At the same time, leaders have talked openly about the stresses of this time: not just in dealing with uncertainty, but the personal challenge of leading, balancing home commitments and doing so in isolation. 

Nick Juba, of Greater Brighton Metropolitan College talks about an increased acceptance and understanding of wellbeing and mental health at senior levels as well as elsewhere in the organisation. NCG’s Liz Bromley also speaks about the importance of individual support, motivation, positivity and teamworking. All of these are critical to the resilience of leaders and their organisations, a key consideration going forward. 

The bigger picture for FE: staying sighted on the challenges that matter 

There’s no doubt the FE sector should be a priority as we emerge from the economic shock caused by Covid-19. There is no way we can solve problems of employability or the complex web of pre-Covid-19 challenges such as the skills deficit, leadership development, Brexit, closer HE and FE collaboration, mergers, curriculum change and recruitment/retention issues with quick solutions in the short term. 

The challenge for FE leaders is not only to ensure they keep these issues in their sights but also to advocate and make the case for FE to be the partner for change, the up-skiller, the trainer and supporter of adults, as well as young people, in the eyes of government and policy makers. “Colleges not only have to contend with the disruption of the College but also the disruption of the College mission” David Russell, Chief Executive, Education and Training Foundation.

Paul Aristides Partner, Education



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