As 2012 draws to a close, many will see it as the year in which the learning and skills sector came under the microscope like never before.
In less than a year we’ve had three major reviews of apprenticeships – the latest, the Richard Review, published just a few weeks ago – the Lingfield Review into professionalism in the sector, Lord Heseltine’s report on growth, and the Ofsted annual report by Sir Michael Wilshaw.
These reports offer huge opportunities to the sector but are not without their challenges. It feels as though the prize is there for the taking; we need to demonstrate we are able to recognise the prize and take it.
The key theme running through all these reports is accountability. Not accountability to central government but accountability to the people to whom we provide education and training. Localism is the new watch word for our sector and, if our sector is to truly come of age, we need to take localism seriously.
Some may argue we already do. We are already accountable to our local communities in that we equip local people with education and skills that, in turn, lead to prosperity and economic resilience. But we must ask ourselves the difficult question: are we providing students with the skills our local economies need?
The only route to a multi-skilled economy is through inward investment. But this requires a planned and strategic approach – and colleges have a fundamental role to play in this. It means working closely with local authority inward investment teams to identify the types of workforce required by industries they are trying to attract, and then tailoring provision to ensure we have a skilled workforce in place when they re-locate or expand.
In places like Mansfield and Ashfield – the ex-mining and textile communities in north Nottinghamshire served by my college, which are characterised by a low-skilled economy; with cities such as Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield on our doorstep – the challenges are even tougher. This makes the need for a strategic, joined-up approach more crucial – especially as progression and learner destinations take on even greater importance. Going forward, colleges and training providers will increasingly be judged on not only whether students achieve their qualification, but on successful job outcomes.
Attracting new employment is one of the challenges; matching our training to current employment needs is another. If a college trains 500 bricklayers but comparatively few secure jobs in the construction industry, is this value for money? While we must always value learning for learning’s sake, and academic courses offer a degree of flexibility in terms of career path, surely vocational training should ideally lead to jobs in their intended sectors.
I have long been an advocate of colleges working together to meet their region’s skills needs; placing collaboration before competition. Working collaboratively – either through federated structures or other formal partnerships – would remove duplication and enable providers to concentrate on their individual strengths and specialisms, and better meet the needs of communities and employers. Similarly, colleges and training providers could also work together more closely. Indeed, there are already many excellent examples of this and it would be foolish to deny that private training providers do some things better than colleges, and vice-versa. So rather than view other providers as a threat in an already diluted market, we must put students – and not funding – first.
Further challenges for the sector lie ahead, with our professionalism and reputation increasingly under the spotlight. It will be interesting to see how the proposals in the Lingfield Report ensure the learning and skills system possesses the high-quality teaching, learning, leadership and management to be truly responsive to the needs of young people and adults. As chair of the new Leadership Exchange, I believe passionately in colleges and learning providers having excellent leadership, sound management and strong governance now and in the future. We need to ensure all colleges are in a position to attract a diverse range of governors, including dynamic talent and professionals who are succeeding in business, commerce and even private training providers. As a sector, we need more of these types of people sitting around the tables of governing bodies.
In times such as these, it would be easy to retreat into defensiveness or, worse still, adopt a sense of denial about the challenges that lie ahead. But there are opportunities being laid on a plate for colleges and training providers – our job is to take them.
The sector must now demonstrate it can respond maturely to these challenges and cement its reputation as a leader of local prosperity and regeneration.
Asha Khemka OBE is principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College and chair of The Leadership Exchange