Principal closes college for staff and students to march on Westminster

Posted on: 2018-10-16 07:00:00

In his tailored navy suit and tortoiseshell spectacles, Gerry McDonald looks an unlikely rebel. Yet on Wednesday this well-mannered college principal will make history when he shuts the college doors and heads for Westminster.

He is urging staff and as many of the 25,000 students as possible to accompany him on a march from Pall Mall to Westminster to mark Colleges Week, a campaign organised by the Association of Colleges to raise the profile of further education (FE) and persuade the government to redress eight years of underfunding.

It’s the first time a college has closed to allow staff to demonstrate but McDonald, principal of New City College in London, says FE has to make itself heard. “We have got to the position where it is no longer tenable to go on having polite conversations with officials from the Treasury that lead nowhere. So now we want to make a bit of a noise,” he says.

The college is made up of four merged institutions in Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Epping and Redbridge and all will close on Wednesday 17 October. “The nurseries will remain open for those who need childcare and our staff will make sure that students catch up with work they missed,” says McDonald.

“Teachers here are enthusiastic and we can send hundreds down to rally and say: ‘Look, this is time for FE now. If you want to skills-proof the UK post-Brexit you are going to need us.’ We have done everything we can to make the books balance but we can’t go on merging and cutting costs for ever."

The facts bear him out. According to the London Economics[pdf] thinktank, FE funding has fallen by more than a fifth – 22% – over the past eight years, while colleges faced higher salary, pension, national insurance and other costs and educated more students. Last month the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported spending for sixth formers was down 21% since 2010 and raised concerns about FE’s ability to deliver government reforms without additional funds.

In real terms, sixth-form colleges received £1,380 a year less per student in 2016-17 than in 2010-11, according to their association.

Staff recruitment and retention is at crisis point in many parts of the country. The average salary of FE teachers in London is £5,000 less than that of schoolteachers, and outside the capital it rises to a deficit of £7,000 a year. Yet most FE lecturers have to be doubly qualified – in their own trades or professions and as teachers.

To pay a rise for teachers of just 1% last year the college had to set a deficit budget, and again this year. “We have had to cut teaching hours to 15 a week for full time students, which is the bare minimum. France and Germany have 25 hours a week, and I want to be able to give them all 16 or 17 at least,” he says.

McDonald has been in further education for 25 years and a principal for five. The value of FE to social cohesion, employers, the government’s skills agenda and to local communities is so clear to him that the only reason he can think for the lack of investment is prejudice and elitism in Whitehall.

He believes officials in the Treasury are prejudiced against FE because they don’t understand it. “Many officials in Whitehall have gone straight from school to university. They look you straight in the eye and say: ‘Tell me, what exactly is it that you do here?’”.

Even the government’s skills minister, Anne Milton, has appealed for support. At a fringe event at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham this month she urged teaching unions to talk up the importance of FE to give her “the tools to go into battle with the Treasury”.

Staff from other colleges will also join tomorrow’s march, including Jo Maher, the principal of Boston College in Lincolnshire. “This is the eighth year in a row without a real-terms funding increase, while all our costs are rising. We need people with skills and they are extremely hard to recruit on the money we can afford, particularly engineers and electrical installers,” she says.

Elly Tobin, the principal of Joseph Chamberlain sixth-form college in Birmingham, says enrichment is suffering. “Ninety six per cent of our students are from ethnic minorities and we want to build up their social and cultural capital and give them opportunities for work experience and visits to employers. However, we can’t afford the transport.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Our FE colleges do a brilliant job and we would like to thank them. Base rate funding for 16-18-year-olds has been protected until 2020.” An extra £500m a year plus £38m for equipment was being provided for the development of T-levels, the new technical A-levels. “We will continue to look carefully at funding for the sector in preparation for the next spending review,” he added.

But Christopher Whelan, chief executive of Reigate College in Surrey, says: “Our staff will do whatever is necessary to ensure [students] reach their full potential. But by Christmas they will be on their knees. The government, cynically, knows this and that is why it is able to get away with eight consecutive years of staff real-terms pay and funding cuts.”

What does further education do?

New City College’s students gained these qualifications in the year 2017-18:

A-level 584 English GCSE 1,583 Maths GCSE 1,574

Functional skills English 1,489 Functional skills maths 1,366

English for speakers of other languages 4,753

Higher education qualifications 1,475 Access to higher education 132

Apprenticeships 555

BTec level 3 986 Other vocational level 3 1,198

BTec level 2 557 Other vocational level 2 1,258

Vocational entry-level 1 321

Liz Lightfoot

Source: The Guardian

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