From education to employment

Rollercoaster ahead – canny management required

Well here we go, this time without a Coalition Government, and what will this new Conservative era bring to the world of education?

It is quite hard to predict what the real impact will be, other than further cuts to our already inelastic budgets.

The budget and spending review will spell out the maximum spending allowed by Government departments on public services, described by the Office of Budget Responsibility as a rollercoaster ride of £30billion planned cuts.

Further Education will certainly not escape this cut, and with a promised new Education Bill to ‘force coasting schools to accept new leadership’ as well as the increasing number of colleges in deficit, we must be highly focussed on what lays ahead.

I suppose the real question is defining what education means in this new era.

Presumably one could assume that it is about preparedness for the world of work, academic excellence through value added and ensuring every learner gets the advice and support they need.

To do that is easier said than done, but must be based on the assumption of an even playing field for learning – differentiated between the educational offer and the industrial perspective -and information, advice and guidance that is not biased.

To elaborate, therefore, preparedness for the world of work is crucial – every school, academy and college must include staff who can relate to this and ensure that skills and understanding are developed.

Academic excellence is not about the top grades, it is the ‘value added’ the provider gives to the learner – this must be managed nationally and without bias.

And on the subject of bias, the role of information and guidance becomes paramount. In my opinion it’s time that individual old-fashioned careers guidance was succeeded by a drive to raise awareness of educational routes to HE and employment, possibly through a team made up of industrialists and HE educators.

Of course it would be necessary for this team to have freedom to enter the premises of schools, academies and colleges to provide such information!

If I now consider the role of Government, it would be ideal if the new Government was to give some credence to these concepts and to continue their focus on quality but with greater attention to benchmarking and reality.

‘What is he on about now?’ I hear you ask – I want the Ofsted focus on high quality teaching and learning to continue, but I want them to support the development of mathematics and English from a more realistic perspective.

Further Education is being asked to resolve the profile of many maths and English learners who have not achieved previously. The sector is doing this but there still need to be a better skills alignment, with more employer input.

This brings to mind a recent discussion with a gas engineer who, through functional skills, was able to fully qualify and gain a career through technical mathematics after years of failing to get above a grade D in his GCSE mathematics.

In today’s FE world, possession of a grade D will infer a need for GCSE maths at grade C – but what if the potential engineer cannot bridge the gap? Surely we need some common sense here, allowing every learner a choice of routes to succeed.

What of the other issues, you may say, such as forcing new leadership into place and further cutting the adult budget? The answers here are very different.

If a school, college or academy fails to deliver, decisive action is required to sort it out. Yes, surely the government is correct about this.

The cutting of the adult budget, however, is somewhat more crucial. Loans will help, but they will be a turn-off to many prospective learners, so further cuts will no doubt be massively detrimental to Great Britain and the whole skills ethos.

In conclusion, I’d like to return to the ‘ethos’ of learning institutions. Here are the real key issues: as providers of technical and professional education they need to be tightly managed and led, with a good career structure for those who have progression potential. They also need to ensure that each learner is the key priority of the leadership team. And most of all they need to speculate to accumulate.

Admittedly it is a balancing act, but it is a crucial necessity for the future.

So the future of the FE sector lies with whom? Well, actually, it is a joint responsibility between us and Government. We have to ensure top notch provision, the Government has to ensure a level playing field with clear reward promises if targets are made. No doubt we will be fewer in the future, but equally we must never lose the impetus to place our learners first.

There is a joint responsibility for the future – we must all ensure deliverability.

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

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