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Back to reality and dealing with the challenges

Well the honeymoon period is definitely over and it is time to face both the challenges and opportunities of the academic year. The agenda does remain a little confusing but it only requires a few tweaks to get it moving smoothly from my perspective.

It’s a bit like statins in my view; one week in the newspaper I read that they are the very best solution in healthcare, the next week a different article reports on the dangers of long term use. But let’s be optimistic and hope that our ‘statins’ produce the best possible results.

I will start with adult loans on the checklist. At Weston College the take up has been better than expected for core adult provision, particularly Access provision, but for apprenticeships it has been dire and that must be a worry in the ‘get Britain back to work’ agenda. Dealings with the EFA and local authorities on support for learners with learning difficulties (LDD) and disabilities is mixed. The concept of a ‘one size fits all’ for LDD – assuming that you can automatically apply a lagged learner number methodology – is ridiculous and can and will create ‘the perfect storm’ for some institutions who experience growth. Equally, as these numbers fluctuate in some cases institutions will receive disproportionate allocations in some years. We probably do have to swallow this pill when it comes to mainstream provision but it is not acceptable for those learners who need significant support.

So what do we do about it? We continue to push the message home and my experience is that if you maintain the tenacity then Central Government listen and so do the EFA. I met this week with David Laws, the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Yeovil and the Minister of State for Schools and the Cabinet Office, and raised some of these particular issues. His response was highly analytical and enquiring and there was real understanding of the agenda faced by the education sector. This is the same person who supported the agenda already afforded to schools so that ‘disadvantaged’ students in further education and sixth form colleges will be eligible for free school meals. When such a funding anomaly is resolved it gives us hope for the future – one down and 99 to go! Is the level playing field between colleges, sixth form colleges and schools on the horizon for both funding and inspection? I must go and find my tablets; I think I am getting euphoric.

Now to the thorny issue of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) and the Skills Funding Agency and the proposed pilots allied to funding and capital. Principals locally gathered to consider such a future only this week and there is an impetus to ensure that we deliver to the agenda of the LEP which, if it is serving into communities uniformly, should mean no changes to approaches if LEPs and College are working together to ensure that through a ‘skills matrix’ agendas are simultaneously met. Some plans talk of funding retention etc. which will be resisted – were employer pilots given retentions or indeed rules? Will this apply to private training providers and Universities? Let’s get real here – funding is already being eroded and we have no problem being held to account but it stops there!

As educational leaders and deliverers we must not lose sight of the learner and why we came into this exciting profession in the first place. The Colleges and schools/academies in our communities need to work together and build trust to ensure that the very best learning opportunities are available to every learner. The authority I work with is North Somerset Council and this week they put on a seminar for the College, schools and academies to press home this message. It was from my perspective a brave strategy and let’s face it with their own limited powers under the current education agenda they could have just avoided the issue. It is without doubt a tricky agenda, as is the whole issue around umbrella trusts and multi-academy trusts. Where there is trust it will work; where it will fail is when the learner is left out of the equation. This meeting was a breath of fresh air in a highly polluted environment – let’s hope there is progress.

I will close now – it is good to start the academic year with optimism and entrepreneurship. It is essential to start it with strategies for the future. It is inspiring to start the year with seas of eager faces keen to start their educational journey. It is our duty to deliver exceptional teaching and learning with zero tolerance of poor teaching and management. Have a good term!

Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare

 

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