Simon Bartley is chief executive of UK Skills

The National Training Awards give us an insight into what is working best in the UK vocational learning system. Encouragingly, further education invariably plays an important part in this. Colleges have either won an award directly for developing their own people or they have collaborated with local employers to meet their evolving skill needs.

What these experiences show us is that within the FE system there is an immense amount of talent and know-how which is potentially on tap for employers. The big question is whether it is being made available to employers in a way which works for them.

Quality of provision

One of the themes that comes through powerfully in the recent Government White Paper Skills for Growth is the need to get a better fit between how colleges operate and the needs of employers. Indeed one of the White Paper’s priorities was to address the question: "How can we further improve the quality of provision at further education colleges?"

A number of proposals are made ranging from the simplification of the skills landscape to the way the Skills Funding Agency contracts with colleges. What we can see, from our perspective at UK Skills, is that there is already some very effective practice in place linked to a real spirit of co-operation between colleges and employers. It is just a matter of finding it.

Take the example of the relationship between Ridgeons Ltd (one of the largest independently owned timber and Builders Merchant in the country) and Cambridge Regional College which was the basis of one of our winning entries this year. Ridgeons wanted to become a leader in the supply of building materials which would combat climate change - but it needed an informed workforce which could guide, advise and inform builders and developers on the appropriate materials. Fortunately, Cambridge Regional College had extensive expertise in the area of modern methods of construction and was ideally positioned to help Ridgeons. But what made the relationship work effectively was a genuine co-operative spirit between the company and college operating on a two way basis. While courses were organised at the college for the Ridgeons staff, the CRC tutors attended manufacturers’ product events organised by Ridgeons. As a result CRC was able to adapt the construction curriculum specifically to meet the employer’s needs.

This sense of learning and working together was at the heart of the collaboration and demonstrated to the employer that the college was serious in its desire to understand what its ‘client’ wanted. A system of regular meetings, student feedback sheets and joint course reviews then provided the infrastructure to ensure that it was all kept on track.

Listen up

What is important about this kind of relationship is that it is tailor-made. Obviously it is natural that colleges will run a lot of standard courses. But if there is to be a real flourishing in co-operation between colleges and employers then it will need imaginative, individually-focused initiatives.

A good example of this came from another of our 2009 winning partnerships - and in a rather unexpected field. Luminar Leisure operates almost one hundred late night entertainment venues. It was becoming concerned about the high staff turn-over and lack of training for its managers. So it turned to Loughborough College for help.

What resulted was a truly ground-breaking exercise in which the college created a Management Development Programme (MDP) which exactly mirrored the job roles of each level of management within the Luminar operation. As Luminar pointed out to us, however, the basis of the relationship was that the college provided a real "fit with our values and business philosophy". The college listened to what Luminar wanted and tailored its offer accordingly. It then built up a close, honest working relationship to ensure that the delivery worked out.

So without question there is plenty of scope for the further education system to adapt to the demands of employers for the benefit of the companies, the individual learners and themselves. But it does require flexibility in outlook and a real desire to respond to exactly what employers want.

Simon Bartley is chief executive of UK Skills, which champions learning through competitions and awards


Read other FE News articles by Simon Bartley: 

Simon Bartley's Christmas FE message from UK Skills

Simon Bartley on the role businesses should play in shaping the skills of young people

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