I met a friend of mine recently for breakfast. He works for a further education college. Despite all the positive noises about the importance of vocational education he was not happy. "FE's in the last chance saloon" he told me over muesli. His view, also shared by a new UKCES report and Tristan Hunt, was that colleges aren't outward looking enough. "We need to be more responsive to our local labour market" he told me (my friend that is not the shadow secretary of state for education). FE gets just 13 per cent of the £3.3billion employers in the UK spend on external training provision.
What does outward facing look like? If local employers need young people to work in care then their nearby colleges should look at providing the appropriate qualifications. If employers need carpenters then teach carpentry skills. If your biggest local employer uses apprenticeships for their new recruits, there is little point offering BTECs. The majority of people attending colleges end up working nearby, so it makes a lot of sense meeting skills gaps in an area. However, pick up a course prospectus from any college anywhere and they tend to have the same programmes. The UKES report suggests this is because FE provision is shaped by government policy rather than being employer led.
So we need to shift from education-led to employer-led provision then? I am not so sure. I think there is an alternative. What about partnership-led? Employers, education providers and others working together to co-design, co-deliver and evaluate training.
I am trying this out at the moment, working with eleven health and care employers and others (like the sector skills council) to design a blended learning programme to improve end of life care. Hospices, hospitals, the ambulance service, care homes, nursing homes, local authorities, the university and others, led by Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, came together last year to identify a need and the best way to meet it (a combination of elearning, workplace experience and reflective workshops in this case). A smaller group drawn from the partners, with expert support, designed the training and the university quality assured it. As I write the first cohort of learners are just finishing.
We have learnt a few things along the way, like the need for good communications and excellent planning, but the programme was designed on time, was able to draw on the expertise and insights of all partners, meets an employer identified need, is sustainable and is getting positive evaluation results from the learners. It is too late for this year but we will put it in next year's TJ awards.
We could have waited for an employer to tell us what they needed or an education provider could have designed the programme alone and hoped there was a need for it. Working together though was a win-win for everyone. The network, supported by NHS education commissioners, continues and now even has a logo and name.
The network is a good example of the skills partnerships Nigel Whitehead called for in his review of vocational qualifications last year.
As it happened I was off to a meeting of the network after the breakfast catch up with my friend. He mused about what might happen if FE did not get its act together. He was gloomy. Fewer colleges, he thought, the bigger ones merging and more private providers. This would be a great shame. FE has a lot to offer. And by the way I don't think Higher Education always gets it right either. Far from it. Or employers or private providers. We could all learn and improve. A great way to do that is to work together. Let's have more partnership-led training.
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