I am sitting at my desk at Weston College, looking out at the expanse of sand and mud that makes up the immediate view, and I cannot but think how the terrain I survey resembles the future for 14-16 and 16-19 learning opportunities – a mixture of opportunity and difficult quagmires.
However, there is a new team on the block and together they mean business. At least I hope they do because the report from Professor Alison Wolf published on March 4 supports some of the key criteria of the Michael Gove approach but fundamentally takes the biopsy and moves it forward to potentially pioneering surgery.
Professor Wolf certainly raises issues that need resolution but perhaps more importantly she recognises the full potential of vocational education and has clear expectations of what schools should do and indeed, how they should be measured. Too often as College Principals we discuss the poor levels of literacy and numeracy that our students arrive with. Now we are being offered a distinct attempt to ensure that schools concentrate on the delivery of a guaranteed core curriculum which is measured appropriately.
There is a real danger in looking at the recommendations in isolation, as every community will have challenges to face and there will be a need to create a new combination of solutions. In North Somerset we have a successful 11-16 school and College model in Weston-super-Mare and some highly performing 11-18 schools in the north of the county. Schools and Colleges are ably supported by the Director of Children's Services of the local council and her team, but now the game is to look at the gaps in provision. No longer is another secondary school the natural choice for expansion, but perhaps a combination of studio schools, university technical colleges and others. Equally, if this was the solution, has the Government clearly set out the criteria for success? The Academy message has without doubt led to concerns and confusion. First academies were seen as the solution for poorly performing institutions, now they are seen as the solution for high performing organisations. Of course, the measure of "high performance" was based to some extent on the old model, where schools interspersed GCSEs with vocational options to aid the league table mentality.
So how will the story unfold? Eternal optimists will see schools in the future concentrating on English and Mathematics alongside an entrepreneurial curriculum which will ensure an introduction to employability skills. Simultaneously we will see courses for the 16-19 cohort which will be a mix of academic and vocational, but again with the "employability" thread running through this so that they have every chance of leading to decent employment opportunities and/or high level studies. Academies and FE colleges will be singing from the same hymn sheet and young people will graduate at high profile events which will celebrate achievement. The Government will spearhead the initiatives - no longer will FE resemble the "Cinderella" of the learning sector but will dominate, with parents, employers and the new universities of the future recognising the value of vocational education.
Am I suggesting that Academies are the answer? The answer is an emphatic "no", but equally I do put the view forward that they will be part of the solution. The future is a robust and diverse solution, which will be complicated in design but equally will give the learners a real chance of success and improve aspirations. It also suggests a new breed of educational leader who will have the ability to balance resources, solutions and outcomes.
Well, it might be said that I've had too many happy pills, but before the finger is pointed have we in FE truly considered the potential here? We could have a simplified funding mechanism, there will be accountability for Mathematics and English skills achievement and more funding could follow our learners. The results of this remain to be seen, and could be just another fairy tale, but surely it is worth thinking about.
So Mr Gove, so Professor Wolf, the ball is in your court. We are ready to play but there's just one point we Principals would like to make - don't reinvent the wheel. We already spearhead vocational training. Give us the credit and the PR, and hold us accountable.
Dr Paul Phillips is chief executive and principal of Weston College, North Somerset