On 19 March the Skills Commission opened its inquiry into quality and specialisation in public and private further education.
The inquiry is sponsored by LSIS and the City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development, and is co-chaired by our chair, Dame Ruth Silver and Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield. The inquiry will consider whether, and how, specialisation can act as a stimulus for economic growth and innovation. It will examine the key drivers for specialisation, the effects of specialisation on curriculum, teaching, links with employers and student satisfaction, and current and future trends in specialisation. Running concurrently is a research project, which examines how providers understand local and regional demands for skills.
The Skills Commission inquiry is pertinent in the face of the new freedoms the FE sector is facing following the publication of New Challenges, New Chances. Colleges are increasingly under the spotlight as they are expected to make an economic contribution to society by preparing people for, and getting them into, work .
There are already examples of specialisation in FE; for instance the government’s aim to create 12 University Technical Colleges (UTCs) by the end of 2012. Sponsored by a university or an FE college, UTCs will combine practical and academic study and specialise in technical studies. The areas of specialism are supported by close links with employers and the expertise of the sponsor and work with the local authority and employers will decide what the UTC will specialise in. Employers play a major part in these colleges, helping to plan what students are going to learn and ensure that the qualifications they gain are what is required for employment. The specialisms reflect the institution's areas of excellence, currently mainly engineering and construction, and it is thought that UTCs will also improve job prospects offering students work placement opportunities.
However, there are arguments that specialisation in FE is not as beneficial as it may seem. One of point of view is that colleges should serve all students and businesses in the local community, and due to its nature specialisation reduces choice. At LSIS’ recent Annual Governance Conference the key theme of discussion was ‘accountability to your community – meeting their needs’. Taking this as a starting point, it could be argued that specialisation would reduce a colleges’ ability to meet the needs of their local community. This is because FE colleges cannot provide the same intensity of learning for courses across a wide range of career choices.
Another argument is that specialisation unfairly favours some colleges over others., due to the associated costs. One solution to this would be the creation of ‘clusters’ of colleges in order to help cut costs and share expertise. This could prove more efficient as resources would be used in a more concentrated way.
It has also been argued that a specialised education can be less suitable than a general education. However, back in January 2004 ECOTEC Research and Consulting, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, carried out comparative research into current approaches to FE provider specialisation in England, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand. They noted that specialisation can be seen as a more effective way of teaching soft and generic skills, but with a specific application that is related to the initial career choice of the individual.
The call for specialisation is a theme that recurs in education policy, and was introduced to FE via Centres of Vocational Excellence which aimed to raise level 3 participation and success. Whatever the results of this inquiry, and however the findings may be implemented across the sector, LSIS will continue to maintain the drive for excellence in FE.
Rob Wye is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, which aims to accelerate the drive for excellence in the learning and skills sector