If I had to pick out a grand narrative from this year’s AoC conference, I would say it was the emphasis on collaboration --  especially local and regional collaboration. In some ways this can be seen as inevitable, firstly given that we are now nearing the end of the area review process, but also given the continued emphasis on devolution, as seen in the recent Autumn Statement policy paper, which stated, “The Government remains committed to devolving powers to support local areas to address productivity barriers.”

Take apprenticeships, for instance. A lot of colleges I spoke to told me how they were collaborating with other colleges in their region in order to be able to provide a more in-depth approach to apprenticeships. 

But not only are FE colleges collaborating with each other; they are also building mutually beneficial relationships with other types of institutions. We have been encouraging more of a collaborative approach for some time, and at our own conference earlier this year we heard from Henry Lawes at West of England LEP about their close work with the colleges in their area, and how this is bearing fruit. One great means of achieving this is through what we call “The common language of data” – if LEPs and colleges are using the same granular data to understand the skills needs in their area, the opportunities for working together to solve problems is made that much easier.

Another area of collaboration is with universities. Just recently, Phase 1 of the Degree Apprenticeships Development Fund (DADF) was completed, providing a total of £4.5 million to support degree apprenticeships, and it is clear from the list of successful institutions that there is a good deal of collaboration happening. Once again, data can help shape and build these relationships, and in some areas of the country, such as Sheffield, we are working with the college (Sheffield College), the university (Sheffield Hallam) and the LEP (Sheffield City Region), helping them all both individually, and enabling them to work more collaboratively through the “common language” that they now have.

Aside from the theme of collaboration, there were three other areas that stood out for me. The first was the emphasis on increased competition between colleges and Independent Training Providers. At last year’s conference, the then Skills Minister, Nick Boles, told the conference that they shouldn’t stand by and let the ITPs “nick their lunch”. However, according to figures from the Skills Funding Agency, if anything colleges are now giving away more of their lunch, with the proportion of all apprenticeship funding going to colleges dropping from 37% to 32% between 2015/16 and 2016/17.

The title of the conference – Colleges Mean Business – was, in part, designed to provoke colleges to rise to this challenge. I agree. With the apprenticeship levy scheduled to kick in from April next year, there are huge opportunities for colleges who are really prepared to innovate and compete with the ITPs. Certainly from my conversations with ITPs, there is no lack of willingness on their part to “grab the bull by the horns.” This has been underscored to me by the numbers of them that are open to new strategic and tactical ideas. The question asked at the conference, and which I will repeat here is this: are colleges ready and prepared to make the same strategic and tactical adjustments to compete with them for this business?

The second issue that garnered my attention was the focus on the Sainsbury Review. It was suggested by many that the proposed routes are too limited, and there were a good deal of questions pertaining to the sectors which haven’t been included. Because this issue is currently a hot topic, Emsi have been working on mapping the proposed routes to our labour market data, and we will shortly be putting out some interesting work on this, some of which we hope to be able to share on FE News in the future.

One final area that gained my attention was the subject of careers advice. There are a lot of “shoulds” around this subject. By general consensus, CEIAG should cover all options, it should be embedded into schools, and progression routes should be visible to learners. And yet these shoulds never seem to happen.

What seems obvious is that the system is just begging for a holistic, nationwide careers advice tool that uses quality insight from the local or regional labour market to show young people the entire range of occupations open to them, giving them a sense of the demand for those occupations, and similar careers should the demand not be looking too rosy. We are keenly aware of this need, and alongside our work helping colleges get local labour market insight into schools, we also recently acquired CareersBox, which we believe has huge potential for connecting young people to careers, and employers to those young people. 

And so to return to the grand narrative: collaboration. I’m genuinely excited to see the changes that have been made in the sector since last year’s conference, with the hunger to work more closely with other organisations, both within and without the sector, to provide solutions to the problems we’re all trying to solve very noticeable. We are pleased to be playing a part in helping facilitate some of that collaboration, and I look forward to hearing about the fruits of these endeavours throughout 2017, and especially at next year’s conference.

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