There are 244 colleges in England (including sixth forms), educating over 2.2 million people last year. Their students include young people straight out of school, adult learners returning to education to improve their skills or swap career, students hoping to progress on to higher education and over quarter of a million apprentices.

Almost everyone in Chesterfield knows somebody who’s studied at our FE college. Colleges are famously the provider of 2nd chances, there are many students who may have struggled in a school environment who then flourish once they are in college and there are older learners who may need to upskill to progress in their current career, or who are retraining completely to move into a different career path.

It is because colleges (and private apprenticeship providers) play such a crucial role in our work ecosystem that I was delighted to be appointed Shadow Minister for Apprenticeships and skills in Keir Starmer’s first shadow ministerial team as Labour leader in April.

I am aware that University cities tend to have a strong appreciation of how those institutions contribute to the local economy and community, and we need the same recognition for the contribution colleges make to the communities in which they are based.

In Chesterfield, I have worked closely with Chesterfield College for my entire time as an MP because I understand the central role the College plays in the community and its vital role in building the skill base of our town. My son went to Chesterfield College before going on to University and my daughter is there now.

Colleges also help create the skill base our towns and communities need to attract new businesses and help create and retain better paid local jobs.

But the last ten years have been incredibly difficult for Chesterfield College, and the other FE providers across England. Further education was the only part of the education budget to have had year-on-year cuts every year from 2010 to 2019, resulting in a 30% cut in college funding and a 62% drop in adult education funding.

Coronavirus has placed new challenges and huge new demands on our FE sector. Most analysts expect that the number of apprenticeship starts will reduce significantly for the 2020/21 term, as many employers are going to be unable or unwilling to take on apprentices due to the financial impact of the pandemic, which could push many people in to doing full time college courses instead. There is also potentially going to be more students continuing at college for an additional year due to an uncertain and depressed jobs market, as well as adults who may have lost their job due to coronavirus looking to retrain or upskill.

All this could lead to a significant increase in the number of people enrolling on college courses. However, colleges operate via lag funding, which means the core funding they will receive from Government for the 2020/21 term will be based on the number of students enrolled during the 2019/20 term. This could, for example, mean that a college could have enrolled 10,000 students for this year, see the numbers increase to 14,000 for 2019/20, but have to deliver these courses on a budget designed for 10,000 students. This is simply not feasible.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on business, and the resulting job losses, are going to impact on all of our communities. There is a significant skills gap in many sectors – from engineering to social care, IT to education –  with the skills gap estimated to cost our economy over £6billion every year. As our economy and jobs market changes due to the current crisis, we should use this as an opportunity to fill in these skills gaps and colleges will be central to achieving this.

That’s why I’ve written to Government with specific asks around funding apprenticeship providers, ensuring College’s get funded in real time to end the lag, and supporting employers to take on more apprentices. Failure to take action with turn a health crisis into a jobs crisis and it’s our young particularly who will pay the price.

Toby back on the front bench as Shadow Minister for Skills & Lifelong Learning
Toby back on the front bench as Shadow Minister for Skills & Lifelong Learning
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