Boles: government faces ‘difficult choices’ over future of colleges

Skills minister Nick Boles has questioned whether the general further education college model has a future, amid warnings that “difficult choices” will have to be made about the “less productive bits” of the FE system.
In his first public address since the election, the minister told delegates at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) annual conference in London that further savings would have to be made in post-16 education.
He pointed out that the post-16 budget was not protected and said it “does not take a genius” to realise that more investment was needed for the government to realise its target of creating 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020.
“There will be some difficult choices to take about the less productive bits of our further education system, about those programmes where maybe we can expect more from the individuals taking the programme in terms of their ability to contribute to the funding of them,” he said.
“We also need to look at the range of qualifications offered to young people; are they properly defined? We need to look at the range of institutions that exist within further, technical and professional education and ask ourselves whether the general further education college that we have had for so long, many of which do a very fine job in many areas, whether that general model is one that we want for the future when resources are constrained.”
Mr Boles said he did not have the answers, but that these were questions being asked “extensively” in government. The minister was booed by some delegates when he refused to answer questions, claiming he could not do so before the upcoming Budget.
Speaking to TES after the minister’s speech, AELP chief executive Stewart Segal said that all training providers were feeling pressure on their budgets, not just colleges.
“Looking at the sector by different types of provider is outdated,” he said. “Partnership is the way forward. We need to make sure the system allows better access to funding for all providers.
Mr Boles also told the conference that the government planned to expand the traineeships programme, and invited the sector to “think creatively” about its content.
The minister’s address followed the publication of a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research paper into the value of FE.
It shows that apprenticeships deliver the highest value of all publicly funded FE qualifications, with every pound invested in a level 2 apprenticeship returning £26, and every level 3 apprenticeship returning £28. However, even qualifications below level 2 show value for money, returning £10 for every public pound invested.
The paper estimates the benefits to the economy over the working lifetime of all the learners starting publicly funded FE qualifications in 2013-14 at £70 billion. The average return for each qualification started is £34,000.

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