Follow us at our new blog…

Thank you for following the Association of Colleges’ blog since it was set up in October last year.


The blog has now been incorporated into AoC’s new website and all content and new posts have been transferred there. We will no longer post on this blog.


We will continue to post regularly on Wednesday, with a second post on occasions. If you currently follow this blog, you should automatically start to receive updates from the new blog.

The next post will go live on Wednesday at around noon. If you don’t receive an alert, , please go along and sign up to the new blog.

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A day in the life of…. A College Sport Maker

Carolyn Sheppard, College Sport Maker at Kingston College

Carolyn Sheppard, College Sport Maker at Kingston College

By Carolyn Sheppard, Kingston College

We all know the importance of taking exercise but a big challenge in my job is showing those who are less active that sport isn’t just about getting muddy and winning trophies.

The main purpose of my job is to help students see sport differently to the traditional PE offer they have perhaps been accustomed to. The new in-college sport and physical activity offer is designed to be fun, sociable and offer a variety of activities, so that students are given an informed choice about how, where and when they would like to participate.

I go along at the start of sessions so there’s a friendly face to welcome them and I don’t dress in ‘sporty’ clothes as some people find it intimidating.

On an average day I start work between 8am and 10am, depending on whether I am working later to attend sessions or meetings. The first thing I do is to look at what activities are happening during the day and then spend some time on social media getting messages out to the students about what is going on that day in the lunch time and 5pm sessions. The morning will then be taken up with admin, going to tutorials and answering emails. Lunchtime sport sessions run between 12pm to 2pm so I’ll go at the start to meet with the coaches to make sure they have everything they need.

The students know my door is always open and that they can come and ask me questions. Today I’ve been speaking to a group of students taking Level 1 Health, Exercise and Sports Coaching. I want to make them aware of the in-college and community volunteering opportunities which are available to them, because this can be useful for their course as well as their CV. I often find that after I’ve given a talk like this I get students from the class knocking on my door to get involved.

We look for volunteering opportunities for all our students. Another of my jobs today is visiting our North Kingston site where a group of students with learning disabilities is having a football training session with a coach from Chelsea Football Club. They’re part of the School of Foundation and Intermediate Learning and are undertaking ‘Extended Certificates in Life and Living Skills’ and their enthusiasm is infectious. I gave them some leaflets about volunteering too.

The job of a College Sport Maker is a challenge, but it’s a challenge I very much enjoy, especially when I see the positive developments, and it makes me look forward to coming to work.

The College Sport Makers are funded by Sport England through a package of £17 million invested over five years aimed at linking colleges with community sports opportunities. 153 full-time sports development professionals are employed across 168 colleges.


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Opportunities presented by FE loans lost in fuss over HE fees

Julian Gravatt

Julian Gravatt

By Julian Gravatt, Assistant Chief Executive

There’ve been big questions recently about the future of student loans, prompted by a forecast that 45% of the value of higher education (HE) loans won’t be recovered and signals from the Labour Party that they’re considering a graduate tax.

There’s evidence of a parental revolt against high university fees while the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the Sutton Trust suggested that 73% of graduates will still be in debt after 30 years.

The debate on loans continues to be framed by the assumption that HE is for young people who need to pay for full-time residential study. IFS estimates that total debt will average £44,000 in the new system, compared to £24,000 on the old system. Their model then works out the extent to which people in different professions are likely to make repayments in later life.

It says something about the lack of change in HE that we’re surprised by people in their 50s repaying student loans. Times have changed: almost 30% of those in work are over 50 and the number of older workers will continue to increase. There’s a risk that HE isn’t responding to this trend. A recent HEFCE report shows a 46% fall in part-time undergraduate entries between 2010 and 2013 and this trend significantly affects mature students.

Perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere for ideas. For all the focus on student loans, very little attention has been paid to a 2013 reform where those aged 24 and over take out a loan for courses leading to Level 3 qualifications. The scheme, introduced to alleviate a spending cut, has been poorly publicised by Government but the signs aren’t as bad as some feared. AoC has just published data which shows:

•    30,252 people aged over 24 in the sample of 241 colleges have taken out loans – 75% were female and 33% live in the one-fifth of the country classified as being most deprived

•    In the year since loans started the number of students aged over 24 on eligible courses has fallen by 22% from 107,257 to 84,332

•    Loans have been used for a range of vocational courses, with a third of all loans used for health, public services and care qualifications and the most popular being the diploma in accounting.

The FE loan scheme is new and relatively small: £398 million compared to £7,100 million for HE loans. The HE loan system will continue to get the most political attention but FE loans reflect longer working lives. A few thousand pounds spent on a work-related course that allows someone to keep earning until they are 70 might be a good personal investment and a good deal for the country.

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The politics of apprenticeships

Chris Walden, Director of Communications and Public Affairs

Chris Walden, Director of Communications and Public Affairs

By Christopher Walden, Director of Communications and Public Affairs

Back in 2009, Gordon Brown – the then Prime Minister – announced the creation of 35,000 new apprenticeships which would be based in key companies such as Rolls Royce and McDonald’s. Last year, David Cameron said apprenticeships should be the ‘new norm’. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg has made no secret of the fact, both before and since his appointment as Deputy PM, that he thinks apprenticeships are a very good thing.

So, why do politicians from all three parties go to such lengths to promote, create and reform apprenticeships? Firstly, they must genuinely believe they are the best way to provide jobs with training to many thousands of people across England. But there must also be political capital associated with them. Presumably, focus groups must tell pollsters that apprenticeships make good policy.

However, it is fair to assume that most people, when they think of an apprentice, believe they will be a young person (probably under 20-years-old), working alongside an expert craftsman (and it will usually be a man). But, as we know, apprenticeships now are very different from those from the 19th or 20th century.

Today’s apprentices are found in many different sectors, both public and private, and are offered a range of experiences, from marketing to manufacturing, from barista to healthcare worker.

But the recent massive increase in numbers is mainly amongst adults, not 16 to 18-year-olds. As Lib Dem Baroness Sharp recently pointed out to the House of Lords, since 2009-10, apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds have decreased by 4% but those for 19 to 24-year-olds have increased by 42%. Perhaps the public would be most surprised of all to hear that apprenticeships for people aged over 25 have increased by 350%. This is not to say adults shouldn’t be receiving training support, of course they should, but are they really apprentices?

It is probably not surprising that there are so few apprentices aged 16, 17 or 18. Very few of them are ever told about apprenticeships when they are at school and, unfortunately, few businesses want to take on someone of that age because they’re deemed not work ready.

Perhaps what’s of more concern is the Government’s proposed reforms of apprenticeships. We all agree that businesses should have the major say in the way the system works. But we mustn’t forget about the apprentices themselves. Will the training they receive still be applicable across their employment sector, or even beyond it? Will small businesses really want to manage the HMRC paperwork?

These questions will be answered in time as the new system beds in. That might be in three or four years time by which point a new minister, listening to slightly different focus groups, might be in post and keen to change apprenticeships again.

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Time to stop failing

By David Walrond, Principal of Truro and Penwith College

David Walrond (2)

David Walrond, Principal, Truro and Penwith College

The findings of AoC’s membership survey of careers advice and guidance are no surprise: most young people lack what should be their absolute entitlement – clear, reliable advice about the most appropriate provision for them post-16. Key elements of our education and advice systems don’t operate in the interests of individual students or the economy.

The survey confirms remarkable ignorance about the wider range of post-16 options, notably in vocational learning, skills training, and apprenticeships. Its findings are entirely consistent with recent reports from the Education Select Committee, Ofsted and the CBI.

Press coverage sometimes focuses on parts of the problem, rather than the whole. Institutional conflict and poor behaviour are spicy in media terms, and some of the antics which keep students so ill-informed about their options would be farcical, if only the consequences weren’t so serious for the life-chances for young people and the economy to which they contribute.

Failure to guarantee adequate careers advice, and particularly to promote skills and vocational training, has huge consequences. The OECD Report, Education at A Glance 2013, confirms the direct relationships between a country’s levels of post-16 participation and achievement, the quality of careers and progression advice, and its economic prosperity and social cohesion.

The revised statutory guidance, just published, takes a few tentative steps in the right direction, but tends to describe and suggest rather than establishing clear obligations. More needs to be done to confirm those obligations, and what steps will be taken to ensure that schools and colleges really do meet them.

But there are seeds of hope in current developments.

There are commitments to improving social mobility fromall political parties, and consensus that this will mean guaranteeing access to the best and most appropriate training and education. The failure of impartial, independent guidance hits those from disadvantaged backgrounds hardest. You won’t begin to deliver social mobility until you get it right.

There’s growing understanding of the risk of market failure. Post-16 education and training is a complex market now, with new providers and products. A market needs regulation with fair and equal access to work in the interests of consumers rather than providers. It needs clear, complete information to make consumers aware of what’s on offer and allow comparison between providers.

There’s an increasing willingness to learn from economic competitors, and this isa trend to be welcomed by FE. It’s happened with regard to education and training in too piecemeal a way. The powerful OECD evidence, which confirms that levels and types of post-16 participation and achievement are crucial to economic success, highlights equally the underpinning role of “good study and career guidance services, so that young people can make sound, informed career decisions”.

Good, independent careers guidance is essential for all young people. Without it, they fail – and so do we.

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“Heroic” further education transforms people’s lives

Steve Hook, marketing consultant and former further education editor at the Times Educational Supplement

Steve Hook, marketing consultant and former further education editor at the Times Educational Supplement

By Steve Hook, marketing consultant and former further education editor at the Times Educational Supplement

You don’t have to look too far if you really want to understand the heroic nature of further education (FE).

I remember visiting a former student when I was doing some consultancy work at a college. He told me that, as a young man, he’d had such poor basic skills that he struggled with everyday life. He’d been bullied mercilessly at school, but after getting stuck in a dead-end job, he plucked up the courage as a young adult to go to his local college for help.

He progressed through FE and higher education to become a senior engineer for a military aircraft company. Had he expressed such lofty ambition at school, no doubt he would have been ridiculed even more by his tormentors. Education at its worst is a cruel place.

While we looked through his press cuttings, he explained that he was so inspired by his lecturers that he decided he wanted to know “everything”. He went to the local library, researched the core of the earth and, in his words, “worked my way out to the surface” – meticulously looking up and learning every new word he discovered on the way.

His success attracted plenty of media coverage for the college.

So what’s the secret to getting these positive messages out to potential students, parents and those holding the purse strings?

First, think about the news value. Colleges need to dig deep to find exceptional stories, not just rely on business-as-usual tales. “Catering student gets job in catering” is not a story.

Second, people find it hard to understand what colleges offer so clarity of communication is essential. If you can’t sum the story up in 30 words, it’s not a strong enough story.

Third, mind your language. However much pain it might cause, avoid terms like “inclusion”, “diversity” and “learners”. These expressions are a bastardisation of English and make colleges look as though they exist in a parallel universe.

Fourth, don’t nag. Send the story, have a conversation about it and leave it there. If you’re professional rather than needy, the journalist is much more likely to talk to you in future.

Fifth, try to form a good relationship with a journalist you get on with. Nurture them and take their advice. This will enrich internal discussions about what works.

Further education is indeed a heroic endeavour. It deserves to be as good at telling its story as it is at changing people’s lives.

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New league tables for schools and colleges – some good wins and some early baths!

Joy Mercer, Director of Policy

Joy Mercer, Director of Policy

By Joy Mercer, Director of Policy

In football, the league tables change weekly depending on winners and losers. Last week the Government announced important changes in their response to the 16-18 accountability consultation, so our league tables will be changing too.

Progress will be more important, so focus will be on how much a student improves, not just the grades they achieve. For the first time, school sixth forms will be held to account for students who don’t finish their course. It’s scandalous that colleges were expected to keep their students and schools were not. This, hopefully, will encourage much better careers advice at 14 and 16 so that students don’t waste a year on the wrong school course.

The Department for Education has also acknowledged that current performance tables focus on level 3 and don’t cover the whole range of level 2 provision delivered in colleges, particularly for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. It would be an own goal not to show the progress students make at this level.

Schools and colleges will now be required to publish five measures from national data in a standard format as a condition of funding. However, it will be a balanced scorecard rather than a system that predictably puts a handful of expensive, selective independent schools as league champions. They’ll be simpler and the headline measures and grades are easier to understand than the existing point scores.

A system to measure progress from start to finish is a good thing, but the current system is flawed. When 17-year-olds arrive in college with poor school grades this has a negative effect on the college’s league position because the allocations system is so complicated only DfE understands it. Hundreds of thousands of students also don’t make it into the calculation. This must be resolved by 2016.

GCSE maths and English will also be a progress measure, but there’ll be no mention of the fantastic progress made in functional skills.

DfE destinations data depends on local authority returns; two years ago this didn’t capture one in five destinations from general further education colleges. It was better for sixth form colleges because most students went to university. DfE understands these problems and is only publishing this as experimental data, but this may not help students make their choices. Ofsted intends to use the same statistics in their data dashboard for governors, which will be published in May.

Performance tables won’t include work-based learning providers. This narrow focus on schools, colleges and sixth form colleges means the tables aren’t comprehensive and are limited in the information they give to aid choice.

Finally, it’s a mistake to define all achievement against academic teaching for vocational students, apprentices and students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

So let’s use Recognising and Recording Progress and Achievement (RARPA) to develop a balanced scorecard for individuals, rather than squeezing everyone into the north stand.

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Higher education in England – one sector or every university for itself?

Michele Sutton, AoC President

Michele Sutton, AoC President

By Michele Sutton, AoC President 

We have created a strange tertiary education system of sectors (secondary, work-based, further education (FE) and higher education (HE)) that effectively create significant barriers for students. These sectors are based around a very elitist understanding of education with quite different cultures and regulations that are not useful to the students and their progression. This needs to change.

We are losing the technical education route so fully understood by the Robbins committee in the early sixties, which argued for the need to “provide an alternative ladder of higher education for boys and girls who are unable to follow, or are unsuited to, a sixth form and university course”.

We need to accept that university education can be offered in various institutions and if you look around the world it always has; you need to go no further then Scotland, which has maintained a very successful higher technical education route with a much higher young participation rate.

All the elitist understandings around HE are actually socially and politically constructed, probably out-of-date and we need to develop a more contemporary approach to meet the needs of a globalised world with all early industrialising countries experiencing significant youth unemployment and increasing wage inequalities.

There is uncertainty about some of the newer entrants to the HE market. We have seen the ‘private university’ shambles in America and all parties wish to avoid that. It is not about who survives – small, large or merged – but that the students get the kind of diverse HE system they, the economy and society needs.

That means:

    • A continued part-time service
    • More flexible and accelerated provision
    • Both short-cycle and honours degrees
    • Accreditation of prior learning and accreditation of good quality employer-based education and training
    • The expansion of work-based professional and higher apprenticeships
    • Delivery in many different types of institutions, where the resource and the quality to deliver HE is clearly demonstrated

That is a diverse HE system – not how many institutions we have.

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Minding the gaps

Michele Sutton, AoC President

Michele Sutton, AoC President

By Michele Sutton, AoC President

Are colleges to blame for the skills gap and should it be our priority?

A recent McKinsey report would seem to answer ‘yes’. It claimed the disparity between the education delivered and the needs of employers is having a negative effect on the opportunities available to students and the economy. But perhaps this is just a mantra, repeated so often it’s become orthodoxy.

Let’s turn things on their head. Is it, in fact, a jobs gap that should be our priority, not skills?

The latest employer survey from UKCES found that in 2013 half of UK employers reported the under use of skills. 16% of the total UK workforce was said to be over-qualified for their jobs. Only a minority of businesses were prepared to give those leaving education their first job but those who did found their new recruits generally well-prepared for work. The survey also found only one in five unfilled vacancies results from a skills gap.

High unemployment comes from low economic growth and a lack of jobs, not from a lack of skills. When unemployment began to soar in 2008, it wasn’t triggered by a sudden decrease in skills or a dramatic change in the kind of skills needed. Our schools and colleges did not abruptly fail and cause the recession. Educational attainment did not decline overnight and cause unemployment and students did not suddenly become more obstinate and unemployable.

Here’s another reason to query the skills gap argument: when and where there is a real shortage of skills, wages go up. Yet on the whole, we are still seeing a prevalence of low-paid and part-time jobs.

Let me suggest another angle. Professor Peter Capelli, who has researched the skills and job gaps extensively, said that employers don’t hire graduates because they don’t want to train them. In essence, what students need is work experience, but unless employers are prepared to offer it, we’re in a Catch-22.

Sadly, education and training do not create jobs but colleges do look at skills gaps. We introduce new courses and address the softer skills employers request. We know that apprenticeships, traineeships, work experience and work-based learning are key to enabling students to start out on their careers. These are areas where colleges rightly seek to do more and continuously seek improvement – and areas where it’s vital that employers get involved.

So let’s remember that there’s more than one gap to mind. Skills are important and training in college, and on-the-job, matters greatly. But it’s the job gap that is causing unemployment and colleges cannot shoulder the responsibility for that.

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Making 16-19 study programmes work for students

Deborah Ribchester, 14-19 and Curriculum Senior Policy Manager

Deborah Ribchester, 14-19 and Curriculum Senior Policy Manager

By Deborah Ribchester, 14-19 and Curriculum Senior Policy Manager

When the Government announced radical changes to curriculum and funding last year, it meant further education colleges, schools and other providers gained more freedom and flexibility to match courses to the needs of individual students aged 16 to 19-years-old.

From September 2013 colleges have to offer these students a study programme. This is an individual programme of qualifications and supplementary activities – including studying English and maths if they do not already have a GCSE C grade – to ensure they have all the skills they need to go into further study or into the world of work.

Colleges tackled this in different ways; Trafford College created a flexible approach to study programmes to ensure they meet the needs and interests of a diverse cohort of students. The college used this opportunity to re-design their curriculum and refine it so that it is more responsive to the needs and interests of students, employers, and the local economy.

AoC’s projects team, funded by the Department for Education, worked with 12 colleges to create a suite of case studies last year to highlight how colleges have approached the new study programmes and looked at the challenges around implementation and solutions to these. The case studies were published as a guide to the sector and have received great feedback.

As a continuation of its research, AoC has now published a further 15 case studies which provide insight into 16-19 study programmes in their first year of delivery.

These newly published case studies identify examples of innovative practice and creative ways of engaging with 16 to 19-year-old students across the sector. The way these 15 colleges have implemented the study programmes principles around English and maths, work experience and employer involvement, provide great learning to the sector.

The case studies provide clear messages to colleges on how to successfully implement study programmes but it is clear this is only a small selection of the great work the sector is offering to students.

Posted in Further education