London's FE Earthquake

Before the Area Review Process kicked off in March 2016, there were 30 General FE Colleges in London. Just over a year later, it looks as if London will end up with less than half that number.

If current plans reach fruition, by the end of 2017 there will be 16 FE Colleges, of which two will be subsidiaries of a parent entity based outside London. Another may become part of a wider university group. The future viability of two or three others – each relatively small in size – is far from certain.

A silent earthquake of organisational change has hit further education in the capital.

It’s hard to say what impact this will have, coming as it does at a time when London is about to take control of a large chunk of the Adult Skills budget. Just as new Mayor Sadiq Khan is busy putting together his “Skills for Londoners” taskforce to develop his strategy the landscape of providers has seismically shifted under his feet.

For years, London has had a pattern of FE Colleges which reflected its history as an amalgamation of thirty-three London Boroughs. Each Borough had its own college, and the size, shape and curriculum offered by each college was primarily influenced by local needs, not any London-wide agenda. This had begun to break down in the last few years, but until now, had remained largely intact. So will this new FE landscape bring about radical change in London’s Post-16 education?

Certainly not immediately. Most ordinary people will hardly notice it, since in most cases the same courses will be running at the same campuses taught by the same staff. The wiring behind the scenes might be different, but FE colleges will still be delivering the same service to the public, in the short term at least.

But over the next decade I suspect things will start changing quite fundamentally. I predict we’ll end up with around a dozen big multi-campus colleges across London and two or three Institutes of Technology. Three or four colleges will be significant apprenticeship providers competing with large national college chains and private providers.

Local colleges will still provide a “supermarket” spread of vocational courses designed to get people into first jobs and move them up the career ladder. But increasingly this will be supplemented by a network of specialist courses in expensive technical subjects like construction, catering, health science, digital skills and engineering. The exact spread and location of these will be influenced by the strategic steer provided by the Mayor’s Skills for Londoners Group. Londoners will have to get used to travelling further to access these higher level opportunities, hopefully supported by a good system of travel subsidies and maintenance funding.

Will this be better for the aspiring London students of the future? Emphatically, yes.

London currently has a very wasteful Post-16 education system which suffers from a lack of planning and coordination and is bewildering to learners and employers. We now have the potential to develop a far more integrated, efficient, system. But change cannot just be confined to colleges. Vigorous steps will be needed to ensure that school sixth form provision is fit for purpose and that youngsters who would do better at College or in an Apprenticeship are given proper guidance and support.

So London FE is rapidly changing. Factor in the two big national changes – the Apprenticeship Levy and the Sainsbury Technical Education reforms – and you have a recipe for change with a combination of ingredients never seen in one dish before.

Let the great London FE Bake Off continue!

Andy Forbes is writing on behalf of the London Capital Colleges - Collab Group Partnership

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