As one leading thinker on all things skills said to me last month, 'This is the end of the world as we know it.' An interesting observation and one that will chime with a lot of people working in FE. However I think that the local area reviews offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to begin the construction of a better vocational training and education system in which FE can really shine. However I do agree that there is so much that could indeed go wrong and that this is indeed probably the end of the world as we know it.
First the positives. The sector is cash-strapped. Few would argue with that. However as HE has found, it does have assets that lock in surplus cash. Releasing that cash through a set of interlocking processes that might include mergers, acquisitions, rationalisation and sales could provide a war chest from which to build something better. At the very least rationalisation into fewer, bigger colleges or college groups could save money through better shared services. Why not have regional MiS functions; quality functions; estates functions and IT functions? For example, moving IT infrastructure to the Cloud is a bit of a no brainer.
In similar vein fewer, bigger College groups means fewer expensive senior managers and the potential injection of senior leadership expertise from outside the sector. Look at the experience of some of the existing college groups to learn useful lessons on how such reorganisations can cut costs and arguably lead to better leadership and management.
Creating a regional plan for how to tackle skills gaps and skills shortages is sensible. Ensuring specialisation of supply to drive up excellence and also build in technical skills at higher levels is a key objective of the reviews. Now this doesn't mean that it is necessarily the case that opportunities will fall exclusively to the FE College sector. HE institutions and private training providers will also be heavily interested in getting involved in this space. However, given most Colleges existing strong links with local employers and their role in the skills and student supply chain this is an opportunity there for the seizing. The challenge is nothing less than to reboot the idea of the technical school combined with the Polytechnic to create a much needed increase in the supply of technical skills at levels 3, 4 and 5.
It is also a great opportunity to expand higher apprenticeships and other levels of apprenticeship. The government believes (probably correctly) that on average, and with all things considered, apprenticeships as a route to increasing overall levels of productivity may be better than classroom based provision of the same level. We should not be surprised by this. At their best, apprentices gain great workplace experience while learning. This means that when they start working after their apprenticeships they are fully work-ready compared with someone who has spent two years more in a classroom, learning technical skills and workplace skills but with inevitably less exposure to actual workplaces.
So the local area reviews do offer a glimpse of an opportunity to align more provision more closely with employer demand. However the reviews will also throw up some of the problems facing the sector and the need to increase levels of productivity. First bigger and larger institutions are not necessarily cheaper. Doing more for less requires levels of investment in new technologies and people. Simple cost cutting won't do much in the long run to solve the productivity riddle. And it is solving the productivity conundrum that the Chancellor has placed as his number one economic priority for this government.
Second the review process is laced with the notion that individual colleges are free to engage or not as they see fit with Chairs of Governors required to participate. Collaboration is essential if a new regional system is to be developed. But at the moment too many Colleges do not have individuals on their Boards with a background in leading complex change programmes at senior levels. Too often FE is starved of the sort of people who have led large complex organisations themselves, as often these types of individuals interested in education sit on HE or even local school Boards. Beefing up governance of the kind that can develop social enterprises that understand and work better with businesses should be an outcome of the local area reviews.
Finally what about schools? If the Govian paradigm is that everyone is better staying in a school up to 18 preferably studying A levels and preferably in a UTC or free school where does this leave the role of colleges and schools in developing a better VET system? Does it matter? Do schools care? The hope is that schools will participate in some way with the reviews but hope is not a proper substitute for expectation. If we want a better VET system that can tackle skills gaps and shortages better and supply an answer to improving productivity we must develop both the solutions to the stock and flow of skills in a whole system sense. Perhaps this is the ultimate weakness of the current review process as described. It is a partial response to a whole system failure.
Nick Isles is deputy principal and chief executive of Milton Keynes College