On 24th January 2017 the Campaign for Learning held an 'In Conversation' with AoC Chief Executive David Hughes. This outcomes note was prepared by TNSLA:

  • The AoC represents almost 100% of FE Colleges and is present in all nine English regions. FE Colleges educate three-quarters of a million young people, but over 2.3 million adults. The focus is often on the fewer number of young people, however, as the funding they represent is considerably more than the part-time adult provision.
  • AoC have recently outlined their new priorities for 2017, based around the desire to improve confidence of post-16 providers in the education system and with their local markets and communities.
  • Although Brexit could have a negative impact, it also opens up opportunities for change as all the political upheavals are encouraging a resurgence in citizen engagement with policy. This provides an increased spotlight on all sorts of policy issues, including learning and skills.
  • The AoC is not looking to extend its working arrangements with other membership organisations such as TSNLA and AELP. However, Mr Hughes agreed that what is needed is more communication and collaboration, with different post-16 sector organisations working to provide a platform for each other rather than competing. The AoC has very strong links with politicians and Minsters, and these connections could be used to support smaller organisations in terms of access and driving forward joint agendas.
  • The AoC will be working hard to get ahead of the policy makers and help form policy, rather than simply react to what comes out. This involves having a very clear idea about the direction of travel, and how it wants to get there. 
  • For example, the AoC recently provided briefings for both David Lammy and Robert Halfon, plus other MPs interested in the post-16 learning agenda. This gives a valuable opportunity to help shape MPs’ thinking before policies are proposed and set out in policy documents.
  • On Area Review, Mr Hughes was sceptical that it was having an impact different to what would have happened anyway, for example around addressing the issue of under-performing colleges.
  • He was very clear though on the need of the post-16 sector to produce a lot more information on how successful it is, to compete with the plethora of information that is available to demonstrate school success. Because schools collate common data, it is easier for them to show how successful they are with exams, access to jobs, getting good salaries for students etc, and if post-16 providers are to effectively demonstrate that the school route is not the only one, then the data they collate needs to be equally compelling.
  • On the issue of AEB devolution, Mr Hughes was unconvinced that this will turn out to be practical. Some of the political rhetoric around redistribution of the budget and postcode funding have huge practical problems, not least in taking student travel patterns into account, and these will emerge as the planned date for devolution approaches.  In purely planning terms, colleges (and other providers using AEB budgets) would be required to juggle income from many different combined authorities, taking account of different priorities and plans.  He is also sceptical how combined authorities will ever manage to effectively plan and monitor AEB funding, given that there is no additional funding available for this function.     
  • One initiative that AoC is keen on promoting is a return to personal learning accounts for adults, to give them more control over what they learn. One of the problems with AEB funding is that it is often used to fund the more basic levels of education, which leaves anyone wanting higher levels of learning with no provision outside of accredited courses. As the current qualification system stands, this often demands too much investment by adults in either time and/or money, thus creating a system that mitigates against many adults accessing learning at a higher level. Learning accounts give adults a chance to manufacture demand for adult learning.
  • One final point Mr Hughes made was how the Industrial Strategy and the lifelong learning agenda has not yet touched the just-about-managing JAMs, whose needs are rising up the political agenda. Current policy and funding copes reasonably well with the basic skills levels and the higher education levels, but leaves a lot missing in the middle. This is where post-16 providers could make the greatest contribution for 2017.