Reading some aspects of the long-awaited FE White Paper held a certain sense of déjà vu for both ourselves and our colleagues. This is not to say we are disappointed with the Government’s updated policy position – just slightly frustrated that it has taken so long to get to this point.
In 2014 Lord Baker launched a new educational concept for the UK, named Career Colleges. This ground-breaking model gave employers a key role in designing and delivering the curriculum of each institution, ensuring that young people are equipped with the skills and knowledge that businesses want and need.
Career Colleges were set up within existing FE colleges, specialising in industries that had an urgent need for skills locally. This ensured that real jobs were available for the young people who were training for them and local employers were involved from the outset, determining the future talent and skills they would need. Sounds familiar?
Our first two Career Colleges - the former Bromley College (now London South East Colleges) and Hugh Baird College in Liverpool - focused on the hospitality sector. This was a rapidly growing sector in both areas at the time, offering huge employment opportunities and facing a very real skills gap. Employers were keen to come on board and students from the age of 14 benefitted hugely from a hands-on, employer led approach – leading to fantastic career opportunities in an exciting industry.
Further FE colleges around the country joined these early adopters, gaining approval to open a Career College or even two in a range of sectors. Eight years on, we now have a national network of 22 Career Colleges with a further seven planned for next year and another five in development; the focus having moved from hospitality to logistics, digital and green technology in line with our changing economy and indeed, our changing world.
From the outset, we were clear that a pioneering educational model involving employers as the centrepiece had to remain flexible. Employer requirements change quickly and the Career College concept had to reflect this. We have industry-led Career Colleges as well as FE-led ones – run in different ways, but all with the overriding principle of preparing young people for great careers, supported by employers.
As the Government stressed in its White Paper, ‘employers must be put at the heart of post-16 skills’. It also went to lengths to make the point that there are many routes to success, stating that it wanted to ‘put an end to the illusion that a degree is the only route to success and a good job and that further and technical education is the second-class option".
All of us working in FE have of course known this to be the case for many years – but it is encouraging to see this position being taken by the DfE. The whole ‘Skills for Jobs’ concept and focus on employability is arguably an obvious one, which recognises the need for change if we are to successfully rebuild the economy post Covid and post Brexit.
It is not possible to plough on with the same educational system we have had in place for the last six decades if we are serious about meeting the skills needs of our changing world. Such change is never easy, but the success we have seen with our own Career College model demonstrates that this is indeed the right direction for our national post-16 delivery.
The development of T Levels has been positive, although the timing has been difficult with an unprecedented pandemic and struggling economy. With our experience of employer-led education, members of our Career Colleges team have sat on several of the skills advisory groups for T Level development. We fully support the continued roll out of these new, relevant and economy-focused qualifications, but work is now needed to ensure they gain the credibility needed among both employers and parents.
And yes, we must face the big current question about the worrying lack of jobs, given the impact of the Covid-19. How can Government implement a jobs-focused education strategy when unemployment rates are high and growing?
Our response is that this is in fact even more of a reason to put employers into the driving seat. Employment in many sectors is increasing – with new sectors expanding rapidly. We need to not only ensure young people know about these options, but that they have the entrepreneurial, digital and communication skills to make the most of these opportunities. These ‘additional’ skills are very much prioritised in Career Colleges and have never been so important as they are in today’s challenging employment landscape.
UCL carried out an extensive piece of research into the Career Colleges model last year, commissioned by the Edge Foundation, "Evaluation of Career Colleges - Final Report". Its key finding was that our approach in building sustained employer engagement might provide a fruitful avenue for others to learn from.
This is exactly what we want to happen. The Skills for Jobs White Paper is fantastic recognition of the work our Career Colleges have done and indeed continue to do.
The FE sector and employers must now get behind the policy and come together to get this important job done.
By Bev Jones and Mark Silverman, Joint CEOs, Career Colleges Trust