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Innovation despite funding cuts

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To use the word innovation at a time when funding cuts, area review and general disarray surrounds us seems almost a contradiction.

Nevertheless at my college earlier this month we opened the first phase of a state-of-the-art engineering development. The way in which this new area came about is interesting, an example of partnership in action, taking ideas and concepts from the College and combining them with influence from the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership and North Somerset Council. The facilities are impressive in every aspect and the learner response from trainees with GKN, IPECO and others show a great deal of satisfaction with what is on offer.

I suppose this is essentially the type of development one would expect to see a lot more of in the future – concepts that are collaborative and also meet the needs of business and industry. I do worry, however, that there will be a balanced approach when it comes to the skill agenda i.e. an outcome agreement that reflects the priorities of LEP, local authority and niche areas of skills delivery. My college is in the West of England so as you can imagine we are facing these agendas plus devolution and area review.

This now gives me a clear link to area review and devolution which in theory should be intrinsically linked as both agendas will focus on best value approaches to skills delivery and ensuring local priorities are met.

Most recently, I attended an AoC event in Rugby, Warwickshire which concentrated on the methodologies behind area review and gave insight into the process. From the perspective of Further Education Colleges it is a worrying time for the whole sector but there was a lot of common sense talked particularly the statement that there is nothing to fear if a college has good or better finances and quality, and provides best value to its learners and the skills area it serves.

Fine I suppose, but actually if the Government takes another chunk of money from the sector, will any institution have good finances? More importantly, and I am very much influenced by the views of the National Audit Office and others here, surely any analysis needs to be uniform, and should apply to all post sixteen provision including school sixth forms and private training providers.

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So then what is the psychological remedy for those of us in the sector facing such challenges? Well for a start we are getting paid for our roles – spare a thought for our devoted governors who volunteer to do what they do. These poor souls will now be subjected to the vagaries of the area review panels and I am sure many governors will be thinking that this level of exposure and time was never in the role description!

Now back to the Principal and his or her management team. There is only one key message and that is to know your data and your finances, because as with Ofsted you need to be able to respond to assertions and to concisely brief your governing body representative(s). The devil thereafter is in the detail but for my part I am immensely proud of our sector and I will certainly be ready to bat for my corner – as I am sure is the case for most colleges as we make a significant contribution to the skills agenda in our locality and do a good job of it. It will be interesting to enter the debate….

Gosh – I have just reread what I have written. It sounds like we need the ethos of ‘Braveheart’ to deal with this current challenge, coupled with the imagination of ‘ET’ and the sense of humour of and disposition of Wilt. Or is it that scene (showing my age) from Dallas where all the goings on were all part of a dream?

Sadly this is no dream, it is a time to face up to realities, to make unpalatable changes, to challenge assertions that are incorrect and moreover to ensure the baby isn’t thrown out with the bath water. Do you know at this rate we will be more than up for the challenge!

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

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