From education to employment

FE must look beyond the qualifications debate

2013 seems set to be the year where education goes to war over qualifications. The wider sector is set for a protracted debate over A-Levels, the EBacc, and the status of vocational education.  At the same time, FE has a golden opportunity to further enhance its reputation as the sector that focuses not only on the piece of paper you graduate with, but also students’ skills, mindset and life chances.

The policy debate will continue, but on the ground, colleges are getting on with our core business of providing and working with employers to continually adapt an offer that is fit for the challenges of the modern workplace.

Central to this is a new vision of where the college sits in the local community. At City College Norwich, we have been working hard over the past few years – as part of the Gazelle Colleges Group – to build a new type of partnership with entrepreneurs and business owners in our locality. Our vision is for the college to act as an enterprise hub in which students and local entrepreneurs come together, with a distinct focus on the development of entrepreneurial skills with the proactive, enterprising mindset that employers tell us they want to see in students.

The focal point for this work within at City College Norwich is a purpose-built learning environment, our StartUp Lounge, which takes students through a series of stages in a business start-up “journey”. These go from developing a concept in the Ideation area, to market research and business planning, finding and working with partners in the Collaboratorium and honing pitching and presentation skills.

This unique, flexible space is used by groups of students working with their lecturers on entrepreneurial skills relevant to their curriculum area, individual students working with business mentors to develop their own enterprises, as well as for hosting workshops developing entrepreneurial skills, talks from guest speakers and enterprise challenges.

Following the launch of Gazelle Local at the college – reaching out to engage the local business community in the entrepreneurial education agenda – the StartUp Lounge has hosted a number of events bringing in the local business community.  These include the Norfolk Future 50, which celebrates the most exciting start-ups in the county. The StartUp Lounge is not just a centre for entrepreneurship for students and tutors within the college, but for the entire local community.

Additionally, it’s a place where our students can interact with, and learn from, the entrepreneurs who offer both inspiration and expertise to help turn ideas into realistic business proposals. We have designated business mentors from the local enterprise community who come into the college and work with students to provide exactly this guidance and support.

The StartUp Lounge is at the heart of our vision for City College Norwich as a Gazelle entrepreneurial college, focused on providing opportunities for students not only to gain the skills they need to prosper, but a solid understanding of how they apply within a commercial environment.

That means, for instance, not just developing skills in mechanical engineering, but learning how to develop new products and solutions for market; xnot just how to be an excellent chef, but how to successfully position, market and run a restaurant in the commercial world. In an increasingly competitive jobs market, the role of FE must be not only to provide skills training, but to fully equip our students so they are highly employable, able to add immediate value to the business in which they work, or even strike out with their own entrepreneurial venture.

We want our students to be confident, well-equipped and proactive as they leave education and embark on their future in a world where few of the old employment certainties still hold true. In a market where the job-for-life is a thing of the past, businesses need more adaptable, self-motivated and entrepreneurial individuals. FE, in turn, must adapt its offering to give students the best possible chance of success. At City College Norwich, along with the rest of the Gazelle Colleges Group, we have embraced this need for entrepreneurial education, the central tenets of which apply not just to our student provision, but to the entire college.

The 21st century entrepreneurial college will be a full partner in the local enterprise community that surrounds it. There is a real opportunity here and now for colleges to seize the initiative and give our students a whole new entrepreneurial mindset, by becoming regional hubs for entrepreneurship, engaging business leaders as well as students. Then we might move beyond some of the current debates around qualifications, focusing attention not so much on what we want our qualifications to look like, but on what we want our students to look like at the end of their education.

Corrienne Peasgood is principal of City College Norwich, a founding member of the Gazelle Colleges Group

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