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

I read an article in the newspaper last week considering the efficiency of anti-depressant drugs and the extent to which they have helped individuals deal with crises in their lives.

It is an interesting proposition I suppose and lead me to discussing how the FE sector needs support.

The danger for further education is nothing to do with drugs but it is how to ensure the message of breadth and competency of our sector as this is often crucially overlooked or misunderstood.

The concept of breadth of provision is not always clear to the outsider looking in.

In fact and it needs attention – how do you get across the message of an institution that is looking after many thousands of learners who could be school link, GCSE, A Level, vocational, SEND, undergraduate, postgraduate etc.

"Impossible," one outsider said to me. "If schools do GCSEs and A Levels, and universities do degrees, how can FE do so much?"

Interestingly my response was that not only do we do such breadth, but we do it very well and by the way the majority of 16-19 students are in FE anyway!

In fairness that person brought a group of colleagues to the College and they left with significant insight into what we do.

The Post-18 review, the new apprenticeship agenda and the myriad of hoops to jump through from the Office for Students is, however, a real insight into the focus on our education sectors.

I worry that the magnitude of detail will be off putting to small providers of higher education and that actually the breadth the Government wanted in terms of higher education provision and growth in providers might actually turn into a home goal if they are not careful.

The unhelpful media attention into Vice Chancellor salaries is equally unhelpful to the HE sector – rather than attack in a scatter gun approach, why don’t they look at the change agenda, growth potential and quality provision at a particular institution and then draw conclusions?

I may have described some obstacles and noted the need for differentiated policy but there is still the entrepreneurial element and passion for further education that grabs individuals.

The advice from Anne Milton MP, Minister of State at the Department for Education, to young highly academic individuals to follow degree apprenticeships was so forthright and welcomed this week. 

I think my apprenticeships team was inspired just from that – mind you, for some possibly less worldly head teachers in the neighbourhood, it was clearly a step too far in their one dimensional view of educational life and they may need the anti-depressants!

Focus however is not just from Government, it is luckily in our midst and our teaching and support staff still provide the inspirational teaching and learning that is the antidote for any form of FE depression.

I watched a student with autism and significant disabilities who not only adapted to both study and progression within our College but also was recognised within the Queen's Anniversary Prizes at Buckingham Palace.

I met the student who can now advance her career because she now has passed her GCSE in Mathematics, and I recognised the success of a group of learners on a brickwork competition this week.

It was difficult to differentiate between the passion of the teacher and the passion of the learners!

As 6pm approaches I can hear the chatter of members of the local population who are arriving for evening classes. I had better get around and say hello to them and their teachers.

It’s nearly 11 hours since many of the teams started at the College today and it’s not over yet, but the dedication and support of my staff is immense.

Focus? – yes, we’ve got loads!

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

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