With the nation's FE colleges facing funding cuts, a revolution of qualification reforms and post-16 Area Reviews, it is no easy ride for the sector at the moment. FE colleges typically each serve thousands of young people and adults in their community, with vocational education often contributing to economic regeneration.
Sir Michael Wilshaw's comments to the Commons Education Select Committee last week came as real blow – and judging by the resulting outrage from many people across the sector, I am not alone in my disappointment and frustration.
To make the blanket assumption that all colleges are in a 'mess' and the 16-19 year olds should 'stay at school' is not only wrong, but also very worrying to be coming from the most senior figure within Ofsted.
Perhaps Sir Michael has not visited many FE colleges? In my 20 years' experience of the sector I have worked in over a hundred, but never have I drawn the conclusions that Sir Michael seems to have done.
Yes, there are colleges which are struggling and, quite frankly, not offering students the quality provision they should be. This is the same for some schools and the reason why we have inspection frameworks in place. The Area Review process will hopefully encourage colleges to look closely at their provision and do what is needed to strengthen and improve, where this is required.
FE colleges fulfil a vital role within communities. Not all young people perform well at school and moving to a college can be an educational lifeline for many who may seek a different, more adult environment as opposed to the traditional school setting. For other students, from the age of 14+, the FE College provides a rich range of technical and professional education routes with clear career progression, which do not exist in schools.
What Sir Michael seems to be unware of are the many progressive FE colleges around the country who are not only surviving the backdrop of cuts and mergers, but delivering first class vocational and skills training in collaboration with employers and businesses. This is resulting in cohorts of young people who are wholly work-ready and can fulfil the needs of employers effectively.
Career Colleges are great examples of such work. These relatively new institutions have not only identified local skills shortages – but are working actively with businesses to ensure that they are delivering the relevant and necessary training to tackle such skills gaps. Industry specify the skills required and education is designed by the employers, for employment.
Meaningful work experience is very much part of the Career College experience and indeed, something many FE Colleges are capable of facilitating, with their often, strong links to local businesses. Across our Career College network, there are some excellent examples of regular and ongoing work experiences opportunities for students; for example, a weekly visit to Accenture for 14-16 year olds students at Career College North East. This is not something that happens as a norm in schools.
Hugh Baird's Career College (supported by Hilton and Malmaison) ensures that work experience is so 'real' that students are being placed to cover sickness absence at local restaurants and hotels, who have the confidence to call the College's restaurant manager, for 'student staff.' Similarly, Bromley College students have helped cater for guests at a range of events including one at the 02, to inspire their hospitality and catering careers. At Harrow's Career College, IBM and Lenovo have helped to design the digital technology curriculum.
Clearly, many colleges really are addressing skills shortages by making sure their students are work ready. Not only that, they are also providing students with curriculums which embed maths and English skills, ensuring the best possible chance of progression and career success. I could continue citing examples of best practice and success stories, as the list goes on.
Sir Michael's remarks do not reflect the excellent work being done by so many colleges, which is a real shame as there is much cause for celebration.
However, to end on a positive note, it is hugely refreshing to see the FE community come out so quickly to defend itself by showcasing its work. Such a united front is essential if the FE sector is to not only survive, but thrive as it should.
Ruth Gilbert is chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust