OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the challenges facing Further Education in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in The Pigeon in August 2020)

Regular readers will know that Further Education (FE) and apprenticeships are a key focus of mine. Colleges and apprenticeships pave the way for a decent career, especially for those who do not go onto university – which is over 80% of school leavers in Bristol South.

A decade of underinvestment in post-16 education and years of the Tories messing around with T levels, apprenticeships means that young people are currently facing a huge crisis. We’ve got thousands of teenagers here in Bristol South who’ve missed out on half a year of schooling, apprenticeship starts are in sharp decline and we’re already seeing a significant rise in unemployment – including among existing apprentices.

People in their 20s with some existing work experience will find it easier to recover from the economic impact of this pandemic in a way their teenage counterparts may not. If we do not support young people now, they – and we – could be paying for it for the rest of their – and our – lives. Our FE colleges such as City of Bristol College and Sixth Form College like St Brendan’s – are perfectly-placed to do this.

Earlier this year – before the Government restrictions were put in place – I attended the ground breaking ceremony for the start of the new Advanced Construction Skills Centre at City of Bristol College’s South Bristol Skills Academy. Weeks later, I worked with the college, Bristol City Council and the DWP to put on another Jobs & Apprenticeships Fair.

At both events, I spoke to young people from Bristol South who were committed to getting a decent job and were on track to do so thanks to their apprenticeships – with support from employers and the college. They face a very uncertain future now.

It’s a similar story for the colleges themselves; I’m in touch with City of Bristol College Principal Andy Forbes who, once again, highlighted a huge problem with under-funding. It follows a report released last month on college finances by Dame Ney which prompted the Labour Party to call for immediate action to address a widespread failure that is allowing our FE sector to drift towards bankruptcy.

Last month (July), I asked the Chancellor to expand the funding to post-16 education and commit to ensuring every 16-19-year-old has a fully funded place at college from September – a pathway to a decent career.

We must ensure colleges have what they need to help young people get the skills, qualifications and experience required to enter the ever-competitive world of work. They also have an important role in retraining adults who’ve lost their jobs due to this pandemic.

Our colleges are perfectly placed to support young people through this crisis, but they need sufficient funding to be able to do this.