From education to employment

Telling the FE story

Kim Thorneywork is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency

With the festive season about to start in earnest, and a new year just around the corner, what better time to reflect on the valued contribution that FE has made to our communities and our economy, and to gaze into the crystal bauble of the coming year’s challenges.

And as the old year comes to a close, within the space of just a few short hours we welcomed both the Autumn Statement and the Skills Funding Statement, putting the latest round of cards firmly on the FE table.

I for one am delighted that the Government has put FE at the heart of its investment. And the ace in the pack – for me – of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was the announcement of an additional £270m for capital investment in FE colleges, targeted to make the biggest impact on growth and on supporting colleges with the greatest needs. It’s a tangible commitment to creating learning environments with exciting opportunities and modern facilities, all of which inspires consumer confidence in the quality of further education and skills.

Skills also received a boost with the news that funding for the Regional Growth Fund will be enhanced by a welcome additional £350m. Indeed, many Local Enterprise Partnerships have secured money from the Three Rounds of the RGF to tackle skills shortages in certain business sectors across the country. And welcome too is the decision to increase funding for the Employer Ownership Pilot by £90m from £250m to £340m. What better way to underline the critical role skills play in business competitiveness?

And the very next day the Skills Funding Statement for 2012-15 dealt the next hand of cards, establishing both the Agency’s priorities and those of the sector for the coming years.

The value of FE continues to be impressive with a spend of £4.1 billion – of which the Agency will manage £3.6 billion – supporting over three million learners. It’s really important that we prioritise funding where its impact is greatest, keeping the focus on young adults, the low skilled and the unemployed. Business stands to benefit too as the Statement also reinforces that funding for work based training will be targeted at smaller businesses. City Deals and Community Learning are also to benefit, all great news for local growth and for those learners who deserve that all-important second chance.

So the next chapter of the FE Story will read well, I’m pleased to say.

FE really is our national treasure, an incredible success story, and one of which we should be justly proud. I’d like to reflect a moment on the success story that is the FE we know and love. The scale of further education and skills is impressive: engaging with over three million adult learners each year, 80% of whom go on to employment or further learning, whilst 85% of FE learners and 78% of employers express their satisfaction with the FE experience. And you have only to look back on the incredible Skills Show in Birmingham last month, which benchmarked FE against the very best, to see how great FE can be.

Yet, my own thoughts turn time again to the future, to a future where we can better tell the FE story. This is something I’d welcome your support on – a new year’s resolution, if you will! These statistics show that FE and skills courses and qualifications can help everyone to progress in work and in life. Whether tutors, trainers, providers or funding bodies we also know that our high-quality FE and skills sector is delivering success for individuals, employers and our regions. We also recognise that the power of the sector lies in its diversity: it is this that enables us to reach into far corners of the country and into each and every sector of the economy.

Yet, all too often the perceptions held by FE’s potential customers – those who have yet to understand what FE has to offer and are yet to be touched by its magic – do not match the reality, meaning FE can struggle to get its contribution heard.

Too often these key audiences that have yet to experience FE for themselves are not aware of the characteristics of FE provision, and parents and smaller businesses in particular may not realise the possible opportunities associated with FE and skills. To address these issues I was joined at The Skills Show by colleagues from leading FE and skills organisations, like the Association of Colleges, Association of Employment and Learning Providers and 157 Group,, to launch a major drive to challenge these outdated perceptions and change attitudes towards FE amongst parents and Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) primarily.

Together we want to dispel the myths that are prevalent about the FE sector, shine a spotlight on the progression that the sector enables and create a platform from which more parents and SMEs will consider FE as a valid and positive educational route for their young people, their employees or themselves.

Since that launch in November I have been especially pleased by the response from the many training organisations that we spoke to face to face at The Skills Show. They have already begun to share success stories and support the campaign by using our hash tag #fe4me in their social media activity. Yet, I’m keen to ensure everyone who supports FE has the opportunity to hear about the campaign. After all, its success will be rooted in the sector collaborating and coming together to tell the FE story. The Agency has a rich seam of data, but we cannot tell the story alone – we know that colleges and training organisations are often the guardians of our learners’ stories. We want to make sure that those learners’ voices are heard. To share relevant success stories or just find out more you can contact [email protected]. It’s through this coordinated approach in the months ahead that we can build our reputation of excellence in learning and truly celebrate the national success story that is the FE we know and love.

This is not a one-off marketing campaign but a beginning of new way of working together. A campaign based on research, delivered by the sector, for the sector.

2013 is important, and we should be ambitious for next year and our long term future. We cannot rest on our laurels. Improving the reputation of FE is not just about a campaign but is also, as we know, about day to day improvements in teaching and learning in classrooms, workshops and in employment. We need every learner and employer to leave their training as an advocate for FE. I know that if we work together we can ensure that our reputation will be secured.

Kim Thorneywork is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency


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