From education to employment

Our Emergency

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

On BBC2 recently there was the start of a documentary that followed the life of surgeons and patients in a busy hospital. I caught up with the programme after reading about it in the Times on the weekend and it provided a somewhat harrowing but accurate analysis of frustrations, successes and failures of the current modus operandi of the NHS.

Without suggesting that the issues we face are comparable to the NHS we are in fact facing an emergency of our own in terms of the skills agenda. In many ways the absence of an equality of treatment and approach could dramatically affect our learners now and in the future.

We must put the learner first above all the bureaucracy and hurdles we face. If we are not careful, the very life-blood of Further Education will be seriously affected.

The answer is putting the control of learning fully in the hands of the agents of delivery and in simultaneously holding those deliverers to account from a quality, financial and progression perspective.

Cuts in funding and stagnant levels of funding are not the way to go ahead or indeed maintain standards. Investment is required.

Last Friday’s management team meeting at my College is probably a typical example of the ‘juggling’ that is required for success. In the meeting we covered the ‘SEND’ agenda and the increasing need for support recognising the attention now being given to mental health. We examined the recruitment of apprenticeships given the vacancies, but the shortage of young people in particular who want to take them up.

HE in FE was discussed within an environment that is facing difficulty given the removal of the cap and correspondingly increased competition. Salary differentials was on the agenda due to the different areas of delivery and also Ofsted due to the variation of self-assessment and inspection of our Academies and College plus the QAA higher Education quality approaches and so it went on.

The detail above can be considered from a variety of perspectives. Is this the norm anyway? Why do we have so many differences between funding, and alternatively why don’t we stop bleating about it and get it sorted?

The reality is, my team are not bleating on about it but in actual fact are trying to solve everything. My point is that the energy spent fathoming out some of the contradictions and lack of information generally could be better spent on advancing the learning agenda. It brings us back to the argument of a learning trust and, indeed, the need to bring such a model to fruition.

So is this an attack on the current system? No, it is an observation that the current system is a variety of current systems. All have merit in different ways: the academy trust, the career college, the UTC, the multi academy trust, the FE College the University etc.

In my college we have a Multi Academy Trust, the FE College, a University Centre, a Law and Professional Services Academy and a number of subsidiary companies carrying out

bespoke business such as offender learning. Each has, in the main, its own terms of reference, funding methodology, governance structure, approval structure, inspection methodologies, audit assessment and so on.

These systems have evolved through time.

But now imagine a high-tech solution of modules that make up a single computer program. They have their own procedures but they combine to form one set of actions. This surely is what FE and indeed learning methodology now needs – an appreciation of the complexity, an appreciation of differentiated models of learning, but one quality-assurance, funding and accountability mechanism.

In many ways this is the argument that some of the eminent and highly dedicated doctors and surgeons were making in the documentary last week, ie our evolved approaches are not jigsawing in any way. Well, perhaps it is time they did. Most of the ideas and systems of delivery learning are sound but they need to be joined up.

So, not a rant actually, but more an observation. My staff, your staff, will no doubt continue to make the best of the existing systems but refinement must surely be on the cards.

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

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