Learning curve

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson outlines our approach to the government’s new Colleges Bill, ahead of Lords second reading

This week sees the House of Lords second reading of the Technical and Further Education Bill. Legislation that aims to reform the sector, by expanding the role of the new Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) and introducing 15 new technical routes covering areas as broad as accounting, beauty and construction.

Labour is broadly supportive of the plans. We presided over a significant expansion of FE, allowing thousands of young people across the UK to develop new skills and gain valuable qualifications. We continue to believe in the value of apprenticeships and that students should be able to choose from a range of quality courses.

The Bill provides a much-needed move in the right direction but should be considered against a backdrop of sustained cuts to the sector, with around 40 colleges facing serious financial pressures. While we accept the ongoing programme of area reviews, it concerns us that the process could move beyond the mergers announced so far and lead to closures. The government must minimise any adverse effect on students.

The IfA will come into operation in April as an independent employer-led body but Ministers plan to widen its remit next year, rebranding it ‘the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education’. As this Bill progresses, we will press Ministers over capacity, overlap and representation.

The IfA is currently an under-resourced body tasked with supervising apprenticeship training and ensuring high standards. Its expanded remit will introduce a significant additional workload, including redesigning qualifications and establishing an employer panel for each technical route. We want to ensure the IfA is supported in ways that enable it to deliver the modern qualifications that meet students' needs during the ambitious timeframe outlined.

A multitude of bodies keep schools and colleges functioning. The IfA will work alongside Ofsted, Ofqual, and the new Office for Students (OfS). But as it stands the OfS will have partial responsibility alongside the IfA for degree apprenticeships, while Ofsted will continue to monitor training quality and carry out inspections. This complexity need not be problematic, as long as Ministers are up front about the division of responsibiities.

While it is logical for the IfA to be employer-led, the board must include representatives of the FE sector, its staff and the student body. Colleges will, after all, deliver the new technical routes and shape students’ prospects along the way.

The Bill takes an important new step in outlining a college-specific insolvency regime, something that will bring greater certainty through a clear legal framework. The plan is to introduce a new type of administrator with responsibility for handling cases, and to work to protect the interests of students. During insolvency, colleges would either be kept going or students would be transferred to an alternative provider. But we want assurances that the proceedings do not disproportionately impact on students from low-income backgrounds, nor deprive teaching staff of a fair redundancy deal or access to their pensions.

We will also look to address the concerns of FE bodies that a special education administrator need not have any direct knowledge or experience of the sector. Ministers may believe it ‘implausible’ that an administrator wouldn’t consult with principals, governors and teaching staff, but the experience of academies makes us wary. We will seek guarantees that the administrator will not be able to pass public assets to the private sector unless a convincing argument is first made.

In presenting Labour's case for a stronger technical and FE sector, myself and our frontbench team in the Lords want to shape the Bill so it increases the options available to students and delivers the safeguards needed to allow colleges to deliver quality teaching.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 1st February 2017

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