From education to employment

The Answer to “Superficial” Area Reviews: The Common Language of Data

In a recent article for TES, Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and currently chair of Barton Peveril Sixth Form College in Eastleigh, made some interesting observations about the current area-based reviews of post-16 provision. Speaking from experience, his college having just been part of the review in the Solent area, he offered a number of significant criticisms of the process, concluding that what the sector really needs is not one-off events like the area reviews, but to seek out ways of “effectively coordinating provision”.

Among his criticisms were the “considerable” cost of the whole exercise, the “distraction of senior leaders and governors at a time when there were many other demands on their attention”, limited specific employer input, and “tardy and incomplete” official guidance. But perhaps his most withering criticism was the claim that the exercise was somewhat shallow and unlikely to improve the college system in the long run:

“Yet without some effective coordination of provision, we shall be compelled to undergo yet more one-off, superficial and expensive exercises like the area reviews. There must be a better way of skinning this particular cat.”

One of his main reasons for seeing the whole process as a superficial response to a deeper problem, was a lack of co-ordination, especially with regard to economic information:

“There were endless difficulties with what information was available about current and likely future patterns of supply and demand, with an almost constant back and forth between the review team and the colleges for comparisons, checking and correcting. The LEP did its best, but informed, specific employer input was limited.”

He went on to spell out clearly what he saw would be needed to bring in positive, long-term change:

“Above all, the reviews are a one-off event when what is needed, if we are serious about wanting provision to reflect and indeed anticipate changes in demand and financial support, is surely something that is permanent, comprehensive and properly resourced.”

In terms of ensuring that colleges are adequately meeting the needs of the communities they serve, his comments highlight two highly interconnected problems. One of these is simply that of getting the various stakeholders in an area – colleges, employers, students, Local Authorities, LEPs and even universities – communicating more regularly and more effectively, and working together to pursue common goals. The second is a means of helping them all to be able to “sing from the same hymn sheet”.

The first of these problems is largely a question of the various stakeholders in an area realising that they all have a number of mutually overlapping goals. Employers need people with the right skills. Students need the right skills for employment. Communities want to prosper. LEPs want to see increased productivity and growth. Colleges and universities want to make their students more employable. All of these aims are in fact mutually beneficial to the other stakeholders.

Yet in his piece, Professor Brown describes a situation where “Employers are mostly disengaged – students and local communities even more so.” That sounds sadly familiar, doesn’t it? Time and time again I have come across situations in areas where LEPs hardly speak to colleges, colleges barely speak to the universities, communities have little appreciation of the value of the providers in their midst, students are fodder going through the system, and employers are somewhere in the distance complaining that they can’t get people with the right skills. But since all their aims have a number of points that mutually overlap, why on earth should this be so?  

I believe a big part of the answer to this phenomena of stakeholders with mutual aims pulling apart, rather than pulling together, is to answer the second problem first. That is, to create a mechanism whereby the various stakeholders start to see more clearly how their aims are similar, and where connectivity and collaboration between the various stakeholders is made much easier. What is that mechanism? Without wishing to suggest that this is the complete solution – it isn’t – a large part of the answer is labour market intelligence. This, in fact, is the core of our mission at Emsi:

“To connect the education, economic development and employment sectors together through the common language of labour market data.”

If that sounds to you like a grand vision, you’re right: it is. However, it is certainly not pie in the sky, and there are already a number of areas where this is already happening.

For example, in Sheffield we are partnering with Sheffield College, Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield City Region LEP to bring market intelligence solutions into their operations. The fact of all three stakeholders accessing the same data means that they are able to work together – along with employers – to address regional skills needs, and develop frameworks that enable them all to respond efficiently and effectively to demand in their area. In other words, through the common language of data, they are able to draw their mutual interests together for the benefit of employers, students and the community as a whole.

Another great example of how data can lead to better connectivity is found in the West of England. At our conference earlier this year, Henry Lawes, Education Partnership Manager at West of England LEP, spoke about the strong relationship the LEP has with the region’s colleges, with the partnership cemented by a Joint Venture Agreement, and by regular contact and support at senior management level.

According to Mr Lawes, both colleges and LEPs offer something that the other needs in order to achieve their aims of increasing growth: colleges need a better understanding of the skills gaps that employers are facing in the area; LEPs need colleges to have a curriculum that is responsive to local employer needs. Which is of course where data once again comes in. With data providing a “common language” for all of these stakeholders, together they are better placed to better understand and respond to local demand, and between them better tackle issues such as apprenticeships, CEIAG, and curriculum development.

Roger Brown is right when he says that one-off events like the area-based reviews will not bring the lasting changes that the FE sector needs. He is also right when he hints at the need for a longer term approach that involves better connectivity, co-ordination and collaboration. The common language of data, I believe, can play a key role in fulfilling this lofty vision.

Andy Durman, Managing Director Emsi UK

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