So it is December once again and Further Education is almost at the end of its first term. I trust you have all had an interesting term and, whilst no doubt paddling like mad below the surface, have maintained your head above the water line.

Whilst it has been the end of the first term of the Academic year it is also the end of the 2012 calendar year and we have witnessed many challenges and opportunities. I will context my own College in this article but I am sure that many of the themes will resonate with your own experiences.

My first port of call is the local enterprise partnership which has replaced the Regional Development Agency and is really trying to make an impact upon the skills agenda. Our LEP, known as the West of England LEP, has created a separate subgroup to look at the whole skills agenda. Progress on the Further Education front is positive with Higher Education now getting more involved in the scene.

Local colleges and training providers are working together on a series of projects where collaborative activities have already brought in sources of funding where we can tackle issues around skills shortages and interventions. The cynic in me tells me that this money was in fact removed from the FE budget a long time ago but at least we are getting it back and using it appropriately.

The Employer Ownership pilot for apprenticeships is another matter – which I think requires robust monitoring to ensure that money is used appropriately to secure long term employment opportunities – only time will tell on this front.

Next, I am going to return to the issue of Offender Learning which I touched upon in a recent article. This time I have to hand it to government – the introduction of what is called OLASS4 is having a direct influence on the whole skills agenda and is producing a focussed approach for the Learner Journey.

Already there are examples of innovation and entrepreneurial solutions to learning. Perhaps the greatest success I have witnessed is the way in which a prisoner has gained skills, created a social enterprise-type model and has now, upon leaving the prison, created a business that is both successful and has had impact. Stories such as this give credibility to the whole process of reducing re-offending. Most importantly they do show that the whole area of skills for offenders needs even greater investment so that we can really prove the value added process is in place!

Now back to the traditional Further Education agenda, and the nitty gritty of our agenda – the issue of ensuring an outstanding learner journey for everyone who enters our institutions. The word ‘outstanding’ will always create controversy but the new Head of Ofsted is at least concentrating on learner experience and how learners succeed. I keep hearing stories of the process – some of which are concerning – but I believe that it does not take long to form an opinion on the ethos of a college and its support for learners.

I don’t know what Ofsted will say when they assess my organisation but I am determined that they will see the passion of my staff and how they go beyond all limits to develop successful outcomes for learners. Thereafter, they will use their definitions and I will use mine and hopefully none of us will lose sight of the Learners.

This brings me nicely around to this year’s Association of Colleges Conference, which I attended – in fact the 12th conference I had attended. It was, as always, a mixed experience with preventives ranging from absolutely dire to quite compelling arguments for change. I don’t intend to dwell too much on the conference but I do need to mention the Labour Party approach to FE for the future. It consisted of presentations that were read out with minimal understanding and finalised with the presentations that there were issues potentially around pastoral care in colleges. It confirmed that there was little or no understanding of our world from them – I suppose I was just disappointed and had expected better – never mind I must take the tablets.

Now let’s move on to the inspirational part of the conference – a young blind lady, who played the piano with passion, quiet charm and total dedication. It moved everyone present, most importantly it confirmed the reason most of us are in FE. I just wish that Sir Michael, Mr Gove and David Cameron had been there – it would probably have clarified their thoughts for ever. Definitely an opportunity missed.

Learning in North Somerset also continues at a pace and all our schools have seen major change during which many have converted to academies and others have seen major building projects and entrapments to their resource portfolio. Most recently I had the opportunity to talk to the head teachers in North Somerset about a planned Enterprise College. We continue to work in partnership and to simultaneously manage change. We are lucky to engage with successful partners and a supportive local authority as we all deal with a changing landscape.

Well I will close now. A very happy Christmas to everyone in education, and best wishes for a very successful New Year. It’s been a bit of a year for us all but we have come through it and we are ready for the next instalment.

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

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