By their very nature systems are set up to attract degrees of change. Some would call this making improvements; others may consider it tinkering. However you look at it, systems that require improvements invite interference, for better or worse. The problems arise when the agencies involved don't talk to one another.
For example, the Government has laid out plans for a Further Education Guild which, according the blurb, will give all of us involved in the sector more control over how the FE curriculum is organised.
That's the theory: no doubt there is a large number of us out there wondering what is next for further education, and will the Guild really make a difference to our professionalism? From my own perspective, it is not an unwelcome move because it may enable further education to have more parity with schools in terms of salary levels and inspection regimes but I have a nagging doubt that if we are not careful we may have yet another level of bureaucracy to deal with. Schools of course, even academies, are not subject to the business contracts of an FE College, which begs the question - is the Government really going to hike FE revenue streams by up to 10 per cent to create the parity? I think not!
This may appear a somewhat pessimistic view but I am concerned with regard to communication and also the rationale for change. Those in the sector are, I am sure, aware of the proposed changes and approaches for the allocation of monies to learners with learning difficulties and disabilities. Suddenly, that process of distribution is being changed yet again with no real purpose. Surely the institutions directly supporting such learning are in the best position to judge how the money should be used? I haven’t bothered to explore the nature for such change but I can guess it includes streamlining, entitlement and joint-agency working.
Now, one more complaint which I hope the funding agencies will pay heed to concerns Offender Learning. This, to be precise, is about creating skills training for offenders which will equip them for the workplace and contribute towards a reduction in re-offending. What currently happens is that the key qualifications like CSCS cards, Health and Safety/First Aid – which employers don’t just want but generally demand – are not available to be funded. They were a couple of months ago but now they are not – fantastic strategic planning...I don't think!
But enough of the gripes. Let’s have a more positive look at what is going on in the sector. There is much development of curriculum re-design as we move to the maximum 600 hours of funding and the new proposals, which although representing significant cuts for the majority of providers, allows us to focus on key themes such as employability skills and the ‘STEM’ agenda alongside the key areas of delivery.
The advent of 14 to 16 learning for college in the very near future will facilitate challenges and opportunities for all providers and I would suggest that such provision needs to be very specific if it is to be effective and sit alongside school and academy provision including Studio Schools, Free Schools and University Technical Colleges. It can be done but should only occur when it is in the best interest of the learner and in conjunction with educational delivery at a local level. At my own College we have been considering a 14 to 16 model but it will be very small and targeted at a particular audience which will be drawn from a wide geographical area.
For those involved in the delivery of ‘HE in FE’, there is the bidding for a further round of directly funded places in the near future, which needs to be managed with integrity and again based on need and ability to deliver rather than a numbers lottery. There are many successful and innovative examples of HE in our further education colleges but, for a whole variety of reasons, there are also colleges not faring well in the recruitment stakes and it is the learner who must be at the forefront of any discussions. Many of you will have gone through institutional assessment (IQER) and will probably be preparing for its successor. Either way, you will be aware of the rigour, attention to detail and levels of scholarly activity that are crucial for success and I realise that this is just touching on the periphery of the process.
I will close now, but if you have been lucky enough to have had a half-term break I hope you are fully rejuvenated. But for those of us who didn’t in FE, which I fear is the majority, keep up the good work and remember to celebrate the achievements of your organisation and try and draw attention of your success to those who matter.
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare