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With the publication of the Government's consultation, "Outcome-based success measures," it looks like the Further Education sector is about to undergo a major shakeup. The plans, which apply to post-19 further education, are set to shift the way performance is measured away from qualifications-based assessment to assessment based on outcomes.

According to the new Minister for Skills & Equalities, Nick Boles:

"For many years the measure of success in further education has been student achievement of qualifications... taken on its own, qualification achievement provides only a limited view of 'success'; it is a proxy for the real value of vocational education and training. That should be whether learners make progress into, or within, employment or further learning."

In other words, the days of measuring a college's success by the number of graduates and the level of qualifications are on their way out; the days where a college's performance is measured by what happens to learners after they leave the institution have arrived.
This is no real shock to the sector, and has been the direction of travel for many years, but the data is finally catching up to bring the ideology closer to reality.

According to the consultation, the Government's vision is for the FE sector to become more "responsive to the needs of learners and employers, complemented by a rigorous accountability regime." More specifically, they are looking for colleges to prove that they are providing:

• The skills that employers and businesses need and value

• The skills individuals need and value to gain employment, change employment, progress in work or function in society

• The strategically important skills the nation needs (and in which businesses and individuals might under invest)

• Value for money for businesses, individuals and the state

As for how this will be measured, assessment will be made using three main criteria:

1. Learner Destinations (into further learning, and into or within employment, including Apprenticeships)

2. Learner Progression (progression to a higher level qualification)

3. Earnings (following completion of learning)

So what does this mean for the sector? On a basic level, it means that if colleges are going to be judged on the basis of outcomes, they need to ensure they take steps to make sure they are hitting the right outcomes. In terms of the criteria mentioned above, this means that colleges are going to have to get much better acquainted with the skills needs specific to their local and regional labour market – the most likely destinations of students who learn at their institution. So where in-depth knowledge of the labour market has in the past been merely desirable good practice, very soon it will become an absolute must for all colleges.

For a college to be really successful in measuring up to this new challenge, I would suggest thinking of the task from two perspectives – college provision on the one hand, and learner guidance on the other.

As far as college provision is concerned, once the Government's plans are in place, the goal of a college must surely be to become as informed as possible about the needs of the local and regional labour market, and to proactively respond. They will need to gain a good understanding of the changing industry and occupational employment needs in their area. Even more crucially, acquire an understanding of the skills needs within industries specific to their local area. With this evidence base the college will be able to compare their current course provision against these needs, adjusting the curriculum to correct the under and over-supply of skills, and plug skills gaps not being met, such that the college is training learners in the skills that the local and regional economy needs in the coming years.

Any college that undertakes this process is likely to get better outcomes – according to the Government criteria – than a college that doesn't take tangible steps to better understand the future of their labour market.

Yet this is not all. Outcomes are likely to improve further still for colleges that not only seek to understand the labour market themselves, but who also seek to help their learners and potential learners understand it too. This does not, of course, mean that learners need to gain the kind of labour market understanding as colleges. What it does mean though is that colleges should be looking to give prospective learners basic labour market intelligence regarding locally in-demand occupations over the next few years, exploring how much these occupations pay and identifying appropriate training routes to progress towards the career goal. This is the kind of information that is likely to lead learners to better outcomes in the long-term, managing learner demand to align more closely with that of local employers, and so increasing a college's chances of hitting the Government's measurements.
Although many in the sector have seen this coming for some time, I can imagine that yet another Government initiative has been met with an audible groan in more than one quarter. Looked at in a positive light, however, the new criteria may just give the sector a great incentive to improve upon the already vital contribution it makes to the economy.

Andy Durman is VP of UK operations for the labour market information firm Economic Modelling Specialists International – click here for a copy of a White Paper they have just published on this issue

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