Chris Heron FRSA, Cert Ed, CELTA, CEO of Vivagogy

For the last three years, Chris Heron has been researching education and learning models, including vocational education, around the world to build a new learning system.

His conclusion after three years is that further education is the solution to many of our most complex economic and social problems most notably youth unemployment and the skills gap.

Welcome to # Part 1 of a three-part series were Chris explains:

  1. What FE should be able to do, and why it is not doing it?
  2. What is the Dutch case study and why is it successful?
  3. How should FE work?

What is the potential of FE colleges and why are they not achieving their full capability?

First, I will say that I have taught in a further education college in Cambridge as well as being a student at the same college!

In addition to teaching experience in FE, I also have taught in schools, language schools and in higher education at a business school Cambridge.

I was a terrible school student and left school at 16 taking my basic exams outside the school system. So, I have some understanding of further education as a student as well as a teacher.

By a series of happy accidents, I found myself in France four years ago with an e-learning project to study a strange college called Leerpark in Dordrecht, Holland.

I was asked to produce a new type of e-learning system for them, but after I had spent a few days looking at what they were doing, I soon realised that the reason that e-learning was not working for them was that their pedagogy was already advanced beyond conventional learning systems. As e-learning is based on conventional pedagogy they were finding it unsatisfactory.

Therefore, for me to design a new learning system I had to look again at how learning worked, to design something that would work for them.

At the end of this project, the conclusion was so complex and time-consuming that we never built it but instead spun out a new business called Vivagogy to support the exploration of new pedagogy and systems for skills training and assessment.

Despite the fact that people were only just starting to write about the skills gap at that time, and identifying the fact that further education in every country was not solving these problems, Leerpark stood out as the shining beacon of achievement and results.

On a local basis, they had solved the skills gap problem.

The simple sound standout facts:

  • 20,000 students over 10 years
  • Funding development of €200 million
  • Preferred local supplier for commerce, large and small
  • Decreased youth unemployment in the area from 18% to 11%
  • Dropout rate on their courses of below 3%
  • The employment rate of students completing courses 97%

So, my task was to take these outstanding results and this very different pedagogy and turn it into a scalable system which could be replicated in other countries.

During this process, I found that people who have not participated in Further Education, including policymakers, usually don't understand what it is or what it could be!

Many see them as the repository for people like me who failed at school but that is not what they are or indeed what they should be.

Further education, vocational education, vocational training apprenticeships and work experience.

These old terms have their origins in the last industrial revolution and as we approach our fourth industrial revolution the systems perception and many of the courses offered are still rooted firmly in the last industrial revolution.

The skills gap is worth $375 billion to the UK in the next 10 years and many trillions of dollars globally annually.

It is caused by some very simple drivers:

  • Speed of change within economies, industries and the job market
  • The fact that our current learning and training provision does not equip our learners for the world of work
  • The difference in perception of education, government, known as jobseekers and employers.

A McKinsey report "Education to employment: Designing a system that works", which I have cited many times, originally dated 2012 and reissued last year, states the following:

To the question ‘Does what you learned in education equip you for work?’:

  • 42% of employers said they did not think that jobseekers had been prepared for a job
  • 45% of youth came to the same conclusion
  • 72% of education thought the opposite that they were preparing education leavers for the world of work.

The skills gap is simply a problem that we have to solve, and solve quickly.

The laws of the marketplace tell us if government and education are not able to solve these problems and private providers and alternate solutions will find ways to solve them.

These initiatives have already started in places in the UK, which is behind the curve in education innovation.

Examples of skills centres coordinating directly with the needs of employers to provide the training required for specific jobs are to be seen in many places, though not all are successful.

The tragedy of this situation is that the wrongly named FE has the structure and capability, if it had the investment, to be able to solve these problems if only a few things were resolved.

  1. First the branding issue - names and brands. Are the terms we are using to describe FE 21st century terms? Terms such as apprenticeship are just not cool. The word is a mediaeval one, not just figuratively but actually. By using these terms we do not make the 'product' appealing to the consumers who are learners and employers as well as teachers. Therefore, the product will not be popular.
  2. Learners do not want to feel they are going back to school - they want to feel that they’re making progress and moving into the adult world, or at least stepping closer to it so treating them like adults is a prerequisite.
  3. Recent reports have shown that there is a skills problem with teachers in further education as there is in most areas of the teaching world. So, skills need to be improved.
  4. The business model of depending on government funding is flawed. The government does not need to fund post 16 education as commerce will be happy to do so provided they get the right output and input.

The relationship with all stakeholders must be improved so that suppliers and FE colleges are directly linked to the job marketplace and the needs of employers.

Further education colleges are complex, ever-changing and comprehensive local organisations of various sizes and shapes.

The lack of uniform profile and role makes them difficult to understand, but locally adapted solutions are their very essence and core strength.

Policymakers feel that they need to support and encourage FE colleges, but they often don't know how and why.

However, the feedback from FE stakeholders continues to be positive despite the fact that they don't have the prestige or respect from local communities that higher education enjoys.

The results from FE colleges are often unfairly compared with sixth form colleges though they outperform them, if you account for the complex, social, economic and learning needs of the students who they cater for.

The low esteem is, therefore, a bit of a legacy reputation, perhaps?

Despite providing learning to more than three million people their role in supporting society is not completely understood.

My contention is that to produce another system to replace further education is a waste of resources.

With the right support, the current tried and tested old system could be remodelled and would be in a unique position to solve many of our most important problems.

In the next article, I will explain what I learned from the Dutch case study and how that system could be implemented in our current further education system to enable it to play an essential role in solving the skills gap problem worth a staggering £375 million to the UK economy during the next ten years.

I have written many times about this case study and people have said to me that it is the future.

It is not the future, it is over 10 years old and has been proven to be successful, but nobody understands how to replicate it!

This is very sad and something I aim to do rectify.

Chris Heron FRSA, Cert Ed, CELTA, CEO of Vivagogy

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