In her speech to the AoC Annual Conference, Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman caused something of a stir in her comments about colleges chasing income over students’ best interests.

Naming subjects such as arts and media, she said that their recent report into Level 2 courses had found that these subjects stand out as having:

“A mismatch between the numbers of students taking courses and their future employment in the industry”.

She went on to claim that putting on too many of these courses, “risks giving false hope to students” and raised the following question:

“Are they putting the financial imperative of headcount in the classroom ahead of the best interests of the young people taking up their courses? If so, this isn’t acceptable. Inspectors will want to see that the decisions that are being made are in the best interests of learners, rather than in the interests of performance tables or for financial gain.”

According to Mrs Spielman, this concern will feed into the new Common Inspection Framework (CIF), which is scheduled to be introduced in September 2019, and is set to include a much stronger emphasis on the appropriateness and content of curriculum.

What this is likely to mean was seen in one of her answers during the Q&A session:

“This isn’t a report which says everyone should be marching towards a job that has been designated for the same sector, but the college sector does perform that role of creating some level of match between supply and demand, and where that goes a long way adrift we’re not necessarily doing the best thing for students. This is absolutely not to say these are bad courses in themselves, just that when so many people opt for them with little or no prospect there is a risk of setting up problems.”

Many in the audience were clearly dismayed by some of these comments, but what was particularly significant was when the AoC Chief Executive, David Hughes, chipped in to say that although his immediate reaction was also very negative, on reflection he felt that it was actually a reasonable and realistic picture, and one that the sector needs to get to grips with:

“I think the report is very helpful. I had the immediate defensive reaction to it and it’s very easy to get into that. I think the response from Ofsted is proportionate and quite right. We need to face up to the fact that sometimes we’re not challenging learners enough to make sure they are understanding the courses they go in because it does happen in some places, not everywhere.”

Putting both Amanda Spielman’s and David Hughes’ comments together, we can draw the following observations:

  1. Firstly, according to Ofsted, many colleges are currently failing their students by putting on too many courses that bear little relation to the labour market that they are set to enter, and this also means that they are failing to address the problem of skills gaps in their area.
  2. Secondly, Ofsted are sufficiently concerned about this issue to make it a far greater part of the new CIF in 2019.
  3. Therefore thirdly, colleges cannot just ignore this situation, but need to take immediate steps to ensure that they close the mismatch between their courses and the labour market they serve.

All of which raises the question: What can we as a college do to ensure we are properly addressing this issue?

In terms of practical actions, Emsi spent a significant amount of time in the first part of the year consulting with a number of leading colleges to identify how the problem could be approached and tackled, and off the back of that we came up with the following three steps:

  1. Using Labour Market Insight (LMI) for your region, you can review your current curriculum against local employer demand to identify areas of current misalignment and potential opportunities for new courses.
  2. Again using local LMI, you can then compare specific course areas – both existing ones and new opportunities – to evaluate demand for associated occupations and industries.
  3. Finally, by using Job Posting Analytics to better understand the skills components of your courses, you can compare them with skills demand in your area, and so make a business case for adding new skills into existing courses or introducing new courses altogether.

With Ofsted set to turn the heat up on the sector over this issue from September 2019, taking these sorts of steps will be critical if colleges are going to ensure that they are offering a general curriculum and specific courses that are meeting the needs of employers, benefiting their students and – for want of a better word – “appeasing” Ofsted.

As David Hughes recognised in his comments:

“As a sector we need to face up to what I call the dispassionate evidence that gets presented to us and come back and show actually what we are doing and how we can up our game. It’s an interesting case study for us.”

Karla Archibald is Business Development Manager for the Labour Market Insight specialists, Emsi.

They have a number of resources that explain the three steps set out in this piece in more detail, including a Three Step Guide, which can be downloaded here, and an upcoming webinar 5th December, which you can register for here.

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