There are good reasons to feel confident about the future of FE. Politicians of all persuasions “get” our sector as never before, and policy announcements (and the specific initiatives that flow from them) are centring on, rather than bypassing, colleges. FE will lead the development of T Levels and Institutes of Technology, and will benefit from the roll out of Industrial Strategy and Careers Strategy. These are important cornerstones in building individual and employer demand for higher level technical and vocational education.
The old certainty that graduates would earn more than people with lower level qualification has broken down this year. Edge Foundation, Bank of England, National Audit Office and others have all highlighted the poor salaries that too many heavily indebted graduates are able to command following 3 years’ of higher education. FE’s role in driving employer centric, high value for money, job-ready training has never been more important or more needed.

But what about those learners who are not studying at Level 3 and beyond? Across London colleges around a third of learners – that’s over 100,000 people – are studying at Level 1 or below. Unless we take collective action, many thousands of learners risk not benefitting from reforms to levels 3-5. And this really matters. The Social Mobility Commission has recently reported that London and its commuter belt resembled a "different country" to coastal, rural and former industrial areas where young people face lower pay, fewer top jobs and commuting times nearly four times those in cities. What can Colleges do to ensure that those furthest from higher qualifications can still access meaningful, sustainable, local employment?

Part of the answer may lie in redesigning lower level curriculum pathways away from a plethora of narrow qualifications and towards more broad-based skills development, aligned to employment sectors. Most learners join colleges with a keen interest in a specific area (eg “computing”) but rarely with a clear enough idea of the range of options available where they might to choose to specialise (cyber security, data analytics, programming, robotics, social media etc). The same principle applies broadly across all key FE specialisms – health and social care; hospitality; construction and engineering etc. From the outset, progression into employment should be encouraged, alongside the option to develop technical skills through further formal training.

But isn’t this just a funnel into an endless gig economy, where learners steered away from developing higher level qualifications are trapped in an endless cycle of wage poverty? It’s certainly a risk, but a risk I believe FE is well equipped to mitigate. It is a truth that when you’ve got a job it’s easier to get a better job. An increase in bite sized vocational and skills programmes, available to employers and workers at times convenient to them, will create progression pathways, both within and between work, and when the time is right for individuals, back into full time education.

Recent research by CIPD suggests that employers take a pretty dim view of the relevance of most qualifications to their businesses, but they place a high value on real employability skills – both soft (resilience, team work, emotional intelligence) and hard (literacy, numeracy skills, adaptive thinking). FE is the only segment of the education market with the flexibility to privilege personal vocational skills development over qualifications. The key limitation, I suspect, is the effort needed to reinvent and repurpose well tried curriculum pathways for new ones.

Education remains the most reliable engine of social mobility we have. Beyond our preparation for higher level reforms, we are going to have to work a little harder, and more flexibly, if we are to increase the life chances and employment prospects of all our learners.

Paul Stephen is Principal and Chief Executive of Newham College of Further Education

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