As we head towards the end of 2020 (most of us with a huge sigh of relief), it is important to take the positives where possible, from this extremely challenging year.
Among other things, the wider recognition that has been given to FE and skills has been a real highlight. Government Ministers have made it clear that our sector is set to be crucial in the post-Covid-19 economic recovery, ensuring people are supported to re-train and upskill in growing industries.
And as a college, I believe we are in a fantastic place to support this skills-led mission:
Three years ago, it became clear that although our students were achieving their qualifications and succeeding on their courses, they were not gaining the work-related competencies needed for successful career progression.
So-called ‘vocational courses’ involved a monotonous cycle of teaching students the relevant part of a specification, followed by a 1-2 week written assignment. This was often a typed essay; uninspiring for the student with questionable value in terms of skills development. We knew that this approach was not going to prepare our students for exciting future careers and that we needed to implement a different approach, focusing on a much wider suite of work-ready skills and behaviours.
So, we revisited each vocational curriculum and looked for ways to maximise students’ exposure to ‘real life’ scenarios. Gaining ‘experience’ of a particular industry doesn’t just mean industry placements. Working on a ‘real’ project within the college environment can be equally valuable – encouraging the development of communication skills, project planning, teamwork and decision making. To this end, teaching staff were asked to work with employers to identify potential ‘live’ projects that could be set, with a clear focus on the skills students would develop as a result.
As a result, our curriculum offer became far more dynamic and employer-driven. Students are now developing transferrable industry skills, as well as a portfolio of ‘real world work’ alongside their qualification. In addition, businesses benefit from a work-ready pipeline of employees who have a genuine understanding of the sector they are moving into.
We wanted to take this work further and strengthen our employer-focused provision – so have now been approved to open two Career Colleges at our Seevic and Palmers campuses. Part of the national ‘Career Colleges Trust’ national network, we share the charity’s objective of ‘supporting students into great careers’.
Career Colleges focus on industries that are expanding and offering new job opportunities. We have chosen to specialise in financial services and digital technology – two key growth areas in our post-Covid world. With employer-designed curricula, live project briefs and access to exceptional work placements, our Career Colleges are providing a ‘gold standard’ of education which we will replicate across our other provision.
Students will benefit from regular contact with employers and exposure to real workplaces. They will understand the need to develop employability skills and get the opportunity to do this throughout their courses. Improving communication skills and problem solving is key – as is the ability to turn up on time and meet deadlines…often the simplest things having the greatest impact.
With the introduction of T Levels and the emphasis on industry experience, moving to a project-based learning approach has undoubtedly had a huge benefit on both our students and employer partners – and we are now excited about taking this even further with the development of our Career Colleges.
As our sector finally looks set to get the recognition it deserves in terms of being the driver of skills development, we look forward to expanding our employer-led approach and preparing all our students for exciting careers in industries that offer genuine opportunity as the economy recovers.
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By Jonathan Briggs, Assistant Principal, USP College