From education to employment

Could FE better serve the public and be more cost effective?

For more than 30 years I’ve pondered this question, and thought that FE was stuck in the past and could do more to provide what society wants and needs.

My thoughts returned to the topic with two recent media stories. Firstly that the NHS is failing society when A&E cover is reduced at weekends and death rates increase. Secondly the notion that schools should be able to set term times, and the comments by many education professionals that, with long breaks, too many children simply forget what they previously learnt.

Despite our claims to the contrary FE closes for most of the summer. Last week I called ten colleges enquiring about training courses for clients. Seven of them told me the college was closed and the person I needed was therefore not in. In two cases I was encouraged to leave a message on an answer phone (apparently the person concerned will get back to me when they come back from holiday). The other call was transferred to a business development team member, who was very pleasant but couldn’t confirm a date until her curriculum colleague returned from holiday!

My clients’ staff need training asap. So should I remain faithful to colleges or go to private providers? My clients made it clear I should find private providers.

Of course FE isn’t the same as the NHS and the response I had isn’t life threatening. However it does indicate a certain malaise. Accepted everyone needs a holiday, but why does everyone go at the same time? The answers given often revolve around contracts and unions; but I do wonder if employees or unions want work to go elsewhere when the solution is for colleges to work a longer year.

The majority of teaching resources stand idle for between 15-20 weeks a year which is a terrible waste of resources.

Is it possible to use FE resources more cost-effectively?

In the US an increasing number of courses are becoming fast track courses, especially HE courses. This is as much down to customer pressure as to the institution. Students take a 45-48 week/year course; they often start at 8am, or even earlier, and courses can go on until 6pm. Curiously, these are the same hours I worked when seconded to a French university in the late 1980s. These hours and weeks are also similar to what might be expected of a student once employed – and we are preparing people to enter the world of work aren’t we?

Of course the above scenario doesn’t mean everyone has to work from 8am-6pm every day. In France I worked those hours on one day a week. The other days I worked 8am-2pm or 10am-6pm or whatever was agreed in my contract. Many of my colleagues with care responsibilities negotiated hours to suit their lifestyles and appreciated the fact they could. The working year in the US colleges mentioned above is also of the same length as here, but the terms for the courses quoted run over a total of 46 weeks each year.

Likewise the number of weeks being taught each year can be agreed. The teaching year can be negotiated and contracted; leaving time for preparation, research and staff training.

It is not beyond the ability of any college to do this if there is a will. But I wonder how much time will pass before it is attempted by many, or become the norm in others.

Provocative or the future

Some people may consider the above to be provocative, impossible to achieve or just plain wrong. It isn’t intended to be; but I do know one thing, sooner or later the government is going to want to see room and resource utilisation significantly improved and customers’ wishes also need consideration.

Stefan Drew is a marketing consultant, and was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges. He now works with providers throughout Europe and the US. Visit:

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