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Interference at all levels

The Skills agenda is perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity for the educational sector; combine this with the potential of local enterprise partnerships and you have a catalyst for change.

I can’t help but wonder however if there is going to be an appropriate consultation with regard to the best way forward or are we going to gain some ‘expert opinion?’ This is certainly no shortage of the latter from an opinion perspective but if you analyse the word ‘expert’ – ‘x’ is the unknown (that’s the mathematician in me speaking) and ‘spurt’ well that’s a drip under pressure so let’s just be careful shall we? My message to everyone involved in this agenda is sit back and consider the starting position before launching into territories unknown. We are an accomplished sector, we need change but neither are we the Starship Enterprise…

Now that we have got that point established let’s have a review against benchmark. Quite candidly the sector has made massive steps forward – major growth in apprenticeships, a real focus on Higher Education within Further Education and, in terms of value for money, improving success alongside dips in funding. Now how many other sectors can show or demonstrate this? There is no conceit in the statement I make and neither is there any complacency. We have a long way to go to claim that we have a consistent, high performing sector delivering value for money. The point I would make however is that we are on the journey. Therefore I do have a message for those capable of derailing this potentially successful journey: be very careful and make sure you consult with the training sector.

Well I am back in the time machine now and I’ve got my hand on the lever that will transport me to 1982. I am in a growing tertiary college in South Wales, Pontypool College. The College is seen as being at the forefront of education excellence; A levels are delivered to outstanding levels, technical courses are delivered across a wide range of disciplines and we have a new initiative that promises major change in vocational education. For those of us who remember it is TVEI (Technical & Vocational Education Initiative) and apparently it will give young people and adults a real taste of business and industry, it will lead to apprenticeships, it will encourage groups who would not normally apply to Higher Education to take the challenge and the Government want to work with the Skills Sector and industry to raise the skills agenda. Now I’ve knocked the lever I’m back to 2013. Guess what I find… No TVEI as such, but massive growth and success in apprenticeships and also the potential for interference which could be damaging.

So what am I getting at? Well, we have made significant progress but now we need to reassess the position and identify both strengths and weaknesses. If I assess the situation locally for my institution then we are part of the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership, we are supported by the local education authority, the Skills Funding Agency and the Education Funding agency. We are well supported in the main by these agencies and have local MPs who are also working with us to achieve the best solutions for skills. We have a public sector apprenticeship scheme, a LEP that works constructively across the West of England and a good understanding of what we need to do better at, as well as celebrate. If we can maintain this momentum, avoiding interference but equally discussing what needs to change, then we can achieve excellence. However, I have to say as I write this that already outside providers are trying to derail the outstanding partnership between Colleges and Councils. It’s called employer ownership – actually its damaging quality. So come on, Ofsted, get in there and sort it out!

Anyway as a Millennium man I need to be sure that I am ready for the synchronised agenda. On goes the Michael Wilshaw button for quality, on goes the SFA Skills button, on goes the EFA button for 14 to 19, on goes the protected funding button, shift goes the level in HEFCE and franchise funding, on goes the sat nav for Local Authority navigation, sizzle goes the heated windscreen for LEP funding, buzz goes the virus control (who’s that protecting me from, answers on a postcard…!) zoom goes the sound as the free schools/academy monitoring switches ON and let’s check the overdraft for the extortionate audit fees that we have to pay. Hang on a minute, what about the other sixteen buttons- what are they for? Oh that’s next week’s changes for the future- I’ll have to read the manual to use them and ask for the telephone number.

In all honesty, I am very proud of our Education and Skills Sector. If I look across our horizon I can see schools converting to academies, growth in skills, growth in Higher Education, real evidence of a collaborative agenda and some fantastic and proven partnership. My area of the world is North Somerset and if I look at the issue of support for leavers with learning difficulties and disabilities then the work of my colleagues, the funding agencies and the local authority, has just been superb. I did talk to some industrialists about the issue of LDD and some looked at me blankly- it was at this point that I knew that to destroy the current funding approaches in the UK would be madness. That is not a challenge by the way…

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

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