Further Education is facing unprecedented challenges to delivery of its skills agenda at present. The issue of how to fund adult apprenticeships is still unclear after the withdrawal of the loan facility – not that it worked - and alongside this, Colleges are facing funding cuts for 18 year olds. Which leads me to believe this level of discrimination is quite untenable. When I look at the 16-19 year olds in my institution, Weston College in North Somerset, the 18-year-olds are by and large the most vulnerable, often having a second attempt or new attempt at learning. So why not invest more rather than less? I really hope that common sense will prevail on this particular agenda.
Outside this funding fiasco there is much to celebrate in the FE sector. Colleges are achieving more and more in terms of academic profile, work with the unemployed, supporting HE in FE and also their specialised work in the area of learning difficulties and disabilities. My own College was recently inspected by Ofsted, where the comment was made that learners often achieve better than would be expected based on their entry qualifications. This comment is the one that has stuck in my mind because it reinforces why we are in FE. I sometimes despair at the literacy and numeracy qualifications that young people who enter my College arrive with, but it is the dedication and perseverance of the teachers and lecturers who care for them that brings about this significant change. But why are we as Colleges inheriting such learners? Are schools being held to account for progress? I keep reading reports which say, for example, that academy X has achieved 70 per cent A*-C which is apparently impressive. How can such results be applauded when this implies that 30 per cent did not achieve the qualifications necessary for success?
In my geographical area I have the luxury of working with some highly impressive schools and academies. The interesting point is that I know they are impressive within the first ten minutes of going into the institution. It reflects the issue of ethos that governors and management teams can bring to an organisation. Last week I had to prepare a film on teaching and learning and Ofsted preparation for the Association of Colleges. When I considered the components of this it was very much about balance, calculated risk and being outward facing. It was very clear to me that all these characterise ethos particularly that of supporting others. There is probably a general message about management in this.
Colleges need more than ever to be at the heart of their community. The influence of your local authority, the outward facing nature of the Governing Body and the ability for the institution to take on calculated risk is crucial. Very often Governing Bodies and management fail to agree the optimal level of risk and if you look carefully at the level to which Colleges have developed it will be evident how risk has played a part in their growth and subsequent failure or success. Many Colleges now have to deal with the issue of the Local Enterprise Partnership and it is imperative that all agencies work together to create the developments that are necessary for their communities. Enterprise Zones will become crucial catalysts for new businesses and homes and this in turn will stimulate demand for skills.
The role of employers and skills is still not fundamentally clear. In some ways the failure of the adult learning loans for apprentices indicates to me that employers are not displaying an overall keenness to participate in learning. Whilst recognising that this is very generalised, it does suggest a radical failing in the current skills approach.
In North Somerset, Weston College is a partner in the development of an Enterprise and Technology College. This 'STEM' focused College will be a direct skills collaboration between the College, University and council but will also allow young people to gain full exposure to business and industry. Interest is growing already and it is good to see such developments occurring for the learner.
Well I have covered a great deal this time – a bit of a shopping list, really. Let's hope the funding of 18-year-olds is resolved and that greater attention is paid to the mathematics and English agenda in both schools and Colleges. To colleagues developing the North Somerset Enterprise and Technology College, I wish you every success - partnership in learning is crucial. To colleagues in FE, schools and academies it is time to celebrate our achievements.
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare