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Through the looking glass, a time of calm relative to the new agenda we face.

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Last September I thought the FE environment was becoming somewhat complicated whereas actually it was a time of calm relative to the new agenda we face.

Irrespective, the bulldozer is in action and the approaches for Strategic Area Review, apprenticeship growth and offender learning are here and have now commenced.

Talking to colleagues across the sector there is much consternation that the ‘baby may be thrown out with the bathwater’; but equally if the outcome is provision which is of even higher quality, together with better fiscal management then it is to be applauded.

As I write this, the guidance for Strategic Area Review has been released and it is really as expected – a focus on FE and sixth form colleges with reference to the validity of including all post-16 provision but not enforcing the requirement, which is disappointing.

The role of the local authority in the process may, however, actually give rise to an embracing methodology and the reference to the LEP, Ofsted, EFA, SFA, HE and the relevant Commissioner’s viewpoint is clearly crucial.

I hope that the view of the Association of Colleges – who have very transparent insight into issues in the FE sector – will also be taken into account.

Ironically, between all the partners listed, I expect there is already a clear view of what is needed. However in some cases the viewpoint of the Governing Body may be at variance with the facts.

If our role is maximising the superb learning opportunities, brilliant success rates and financial management then I am sure Ofsted, SFA, EFA and the Commissioners could tell us the answer right now!

I suppose that on this basis you are thinking: “So is he backing Strategic Area Review?”

The answer is yes, subject to fairness, objectivity and the learner as the focus of all we do. I would also expect Local Enterprise Partnerships to have a clear view on what they see as the skills shortages/priorities, and recognising that as colleges we provide skills services across LEP boundaries and correctly so.

My own college is in the South West which has in the main a significant proportion of brilliant providers, and an enviable Association of Colleges leadership -under Ian Munro locally and Martin Doel nationally – has always had good EFA and SFA liaison.

My college sits on the boundary of the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership ably governed by its Chair Colin Skellett and Barbara Davies, the Chief Executive. I have seen first-hand how they have influenced skills capital in the short time that the LEP has been in existence, and so there is already evidence of skills advancement and intervention.

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My only plea to everyone involved – from whatever perspective – is that the learner/trainee is paramount in the process and whilst college management is important for fiscal efficiency, it is the meeting of skills demands for the workforce of the future across LEP boundaries that must be considered.

Anyway, enough of Strategic Area Review, now to my favourite topic of offender learning.

There is a massive source of skills potential within offender learning and the Michael Gove agenda will hopefully realise this and be the catalyst for change.

What is important here is that the terms of reference to involve FE and others takes place and looks at how the best delivery models can be further enhanced.

OLASS4 has been a major step forward for offender learning, but to get all elements of the regime to work collectively together and to enhance participation in education is crucial.

The issue of recognised technical skills is also critical if we are to manage ‘through the gate’ effectively and build on the work that already exists.

The apprenticeship framework needs to be adopted in order to ensure that we can use it with obvious modifications within the offender learning curriculum.

I will finish with the issue of apprenticeship growth: here we really need more detail in terms of age range and flexibility of approach.

From my perspective however, what is proposed is not enough as we also need to reintroduce pre-apprenticeships which, sadly, were phased out some years ago. The issue of apprenticeships was debated at length at a meeting I attended only yesterday, but sometimes the danger is in seeing apprenticeships in isolation.

Here in my locality the council, LEP and college have come together with a ‘Law and Professional Services’ model that will link traditional qualifications, apprenticeships, foundation and honours degrees. In many ways it is the interlinking and connectivity of qualification routes that has the greatest impact.

Well, with a bit of luck some of the content of my article may resonate with someone. If not, it is back to the Gordon’s Gin, Rugby World Cup and the family, all of whom are sadly neglected because I work in FE.

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

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