Dr Paul Phillips CBE, Principal and Chief Executive, Weston College

The Further Education agenda is one full of surprises, challenges and opportunities

As I look across my own organisation I never cease to be amazed at the commitment of my staff, the majority of whom go above and beyond to deliver a brilliant and inspiring education to our customers.

The customers range from traditional college learners to apprentices, businesses, undergraduates, postgraduates and major levy employers.

The fact that Colleges can actually deliver brilliance against a culture of poor funding, lack of investment in our sector generally and multiple bureaucratic funding streams is a miracle in itself.

Ridiculous rules permeating the public sector

Two weeks ago, I visited a surgeon at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford who told me that I would need a procedure which would be available probably in 9 months’ time. I was somewhat shocked at the wait, but his nurse explained to me that the restrictions on how much surgeons can earn regarding pensions etc. is capped and therefore he can only work a few days each week.

It brought home to me the ridiculous rules permeating the public sector. There is suddenly a real focus on public spending and ensuring value for money – I sort of get it, but it is spiralling out of control.

We operate in both private and public sector as an FE College and surely, we should have ownership of our agenda which is successful learners. We don’t do courses anymore, we deliver jobs, we deliver careers and that is what is crucial!

It’s not the buildings that make Further Education

Whilst I am a firm believer in FE and all that it delivers, I am not against change. I remember a story of a manufacturing company who in the war produced a certain product, customer service, packaging and quality of product which were outstanding.

When the war was over, one of the commanders decided to visit the company. He was shocked to find that the company had been replaced by a relatively modern house and knocked on the door to find out where the company had moved to. The door was opened by an elderly lady who smiled and took him through the house, into the garden and into a shed where her husband had made the products.

Why tell this story? It Is to emphasise that it’s not the buildings that make Further Education, but the learning that takes place inside them!

Our sector welcomes the level of capital investment promised for the future, but we really need massive increases in funding. My own college is a traditional FE College – it’s grown from a turnover of circa £8,000,000 to nearer £60,000,000 with a real diversity of offering. A five percent increase in 16-19 doesn’t even result in a one percentage growth for our institution.

Moreover, how will the capital be dealt with in regard to an equitable allocation? Hopefully it will start with current capital loans as a percentage of revenue, followed by investment costs proportional to building condition and current loan costs.

Or will it... will such an approach be ignored, or could it be-stabilize? We will no doubt see.

Welcome to another day in paradise

Despite this, I still greet my team with those possibly cynical words: ‘Welcome to another day in paradise’.

Actually, it is paradise because our sector cares, we make a demonstrable difference to our learners and we really try to support them. In what career structure could your life be like a three-legged stool where one leg is the Chief Operations, one is Quality Assurance and the last one is business growth and acumen.

Break one and you’re in trouble, look after them and they can oversee the most complicated of situations and return investment with learner success and profile.

So, what is on my shopping list for the future?

Simplicity of process, to be able to operate like a business, for my college to have freedom of choice in its private domain so that we can compete fairly and equitably with others. It is time for change and that change will be refreshing and innovational.

Equally I doubt FE can ever come into its full potential until it is private sector. But private sector I hear you say means real competition, cut throat negotiation and an ability to win!! Bring it on!

Dr Paul Phillips CBE, Principal and Chief Executive, Weston College

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