The dust has settled after OFSTED's annual report was published at the end of 2014 and a brand new year has just begun so it seems like a good time to ruminate over how these recommendations, coupled with all the other changes in the sector, might impact FE over the coming year.
It has to be said that there was a lot to be proud of in the 2014 OFSTED report. Sir Michael told us that it was a year of growth with 3.8m FE learners working towards qualifications, an increase of 100k on the previous year. Sir Michael also noted that overall standards in the FE sector had improved with 79% of FE colleges and 78% of training providers rated outstanding, or good, for overall effectiveness which is a fantastic achievement. Quality and quantity a winning combination.
However, there's also still a lot of work to do. It was noted that FE and skills providers were still not doing enough to ensure that their learners have the skills employers are looking for, that too many young applicants lacked much needed experience of the working world and that they demonstrated a poor attitude at interviews. This is something that the sector as a whole must address so we don't set our young people up to fall at the first hurdle. We must have a clear focus on embedding the practical skills and work experience that employers demand into the wider curriculum to ensure young people have the best possible chances when they enter the workplace.
It was also noted that FE and skills providers are not working effectively enough with LEPs to ensure that programmes and the curriculum are in line with local employment needs. Fixing that broken bridge from education into employment will be a key theme again throughout 2015.
OFSTED's report on careers guidance highlights that there is still work for us to do on the perception of vocational education as many young people, parents and teachers still view this route as a second-class option compared to the academic route. In 2015 we should continue to bang the drum about the fantastically well-paid careers, with good progression routes that are available as a result of studying professional and technical courses.
But it's not all about OFSTED. So what else will 2015 have in store for us? I think we can safely say that the New Year will have many challenges but also some great opportunities.
We know that budget cuts will continue to bite and FE providers will have to do more with less, so as a sector we need to work together to figure out how we do things smarter. This will certainly include initiatives such as incorporating more digital into the learning environment. In 2015 City & Guilds will be continuing to run and facilitate the 'Think Out Loud Club' which we began in 2014, to bring together people from FE and digital sectors to consider how best we can utilise these technologies. We hope to see as many of you as possible joining the conversations in our online community in the coming year.
We also know that there is a continued need for good quality careers advice across the board, so it will be interesting to see what happens in 2015 following the announcement by Nick Boles regarding the new skills shop. Let's hope this isn't a pre-election initiative but a genuine resolution to one of the most fundamental issues affecting the skills and education development of young people and adults alike for too long.
The full impact of the apprenticeship reforms in 2017 are creeping ever closer so the coming year is a great time to review what we are all doing to remake apprenticeships for the future. The City & Guilds Alliance will be launching a brand new piece of research 'Remaking Apprenticeships' in the first quarter of the year to contribute towards this discussion.
And finally of course there will be a general election in 2015. There has been a clear focus on vocational education in every party's manifesto so whatever happens I think it's safe to say that we can expect to see some changes, let's hope they are for the better.
There is one area that we should all continue to worry about and that is what I call the 'forgotten adult learner'. Since 2010 we have seen a significant drop in adults participating in skills development yet we continue to see the latent skills demand issue with more employer demand than there is allegedly supply. We are missing a huge opportunity to get underutilised people into work here and are storing up a bigger problem for around the corner.
However, despite these challenges and concerns we continue to look ahead with vision and leadership, as surely it's only by us driving forward as a sector and working collaboratively on the solutions required can we making lasting impact from one year to the next.
So all that is left to say is Happy New Year and let's make 2015 a year to remember when it comes to the importance of vocational, professional and technical skills development for the young and adult population as well as the economy as a whole.
Kirstie Donnelly is UK managing director of training body City & Guilds Group
NB If you want to join the Think Out Loud Club and be at the forefront of shaping thinking about digital in FE, visit www.thinkoutloudclub.com