There really is no end to change in the Further Education sector and there I was thinking that we might settle down and get back to the job in hand. Surely Academies, Free Schools, University Technical Colleges, Studio Schools, no notice inspections, more for less, enterprise zones…. need I go on, are enough to deal with. What is the FE professional to do faced with such a myriad of issues?
These are the issues that the team at my own College have been considering and I suppose that we have come down to three key parameters:
The Business need is absolutely crucial – when you are examining so many opportunities then you can either adapt a scatter gun approach and hope there is indeed a hit or you can first examine all options and then focus on the plan of action. What we have learnt is the intrinsic approach to business planning and to look at contribution levels from the perspective of benefits to the learner, benefits to the community we serve and contributions to revenue. The latter is as important as the other two facets because commercialism is crucial if Colleges are to survive and compete.
Quality of provision is equally a dominant factor because it reminds us that we are here for the learner which is paramount. There is a real danger that quality becomes a variable when it should be a parameter that can only move upwards. There is also the need to be very aware of intervention in quality issues at all times, to challenge performance and to put in at times radical and robust solutions to the matter in hand.
Finally, of course there is the issue of revenue, the issue of making a real difference and getting the maximum output for every pound of investment. It really seems easy doesn’t it but it is interesting to measure the value for money perspective. If you ask quality organisations about value for money you will never get the clearest of answers, but it does come down to how you use that unit of resource. The issue of teaching hours in Further Education colleges is often considered to be an example, e.g. one college has lecturers delivering 756 hours of class contact, another 828 and another in excess of 900. The reality of course is exactly how many of these hours are used for delivering, and even then with what approach. In my own organisation, staff deliver to an annualised contract of 828 hours, but I am still not convinced that we are getting the best out of the hours. That incidentally is not a criticism of my lecturing staff who nearly all deliver vibrant learning opportunities for the students and who give above and beyond their teaching commitment.
So what does the future hold? It will conclude without doubt significant challenges, but with these challenges come opportunities to do even more for our student population. We definitely believe that the future is about collaboration with key stakeholders, but at the same time retaining control of the original aim. My college is in North Somerset and the College sits on the North Somerset Partnership which has made significant inroads into dealing with the skills agenda, responding to the unemployed agenda, business start-ups, but most of all, joint solutions to key issues. This probably presents even greater opportunities if Colleges can build upon such a model in their forward strategic planning. It is good to see the local Council and its key partners delivering significant pilot projects with the sole intention of engendering change and making a sustainable difference.
I am sure that every one of us in Further Education today can demonstrate the influence of partnerships and the positive results it can bring about. At Weston College we have bid for a number of initiatives after carrying out our strategic analyses. Some have been successful, others have not, but we have, even from the latter, brought about new partnership approaches to learning and development. It is very exciting to be part of such an agenda. In the Further Education sector we are rich in entrepreneurship so imagine what collaborations this can bring.
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare