From education to employment

Reflections from AoC 2014

Andy Durman is VP of UK operations for the labour market information firm Economic Modelling Specialists International

If you were to ask me what I associate with the month of November, high up on the list would be the AoC Conference in Birmingham, which has become a regular fixture in my calendar. This year was my 8th or 9th conference (I think!) and although I should probably resist the temptation to deal in clichés, I find I can’t help myself: It really does seem to come around sooner every year, and before anyone offers a reason why that might be, I am well aware that the speed with which it returns is no doubt directly proportional to the number of birthdays I have had!

For me AoC is a good time to catch up with customers, many of whom have become good friends over the years. I also find it a good opportunity to take the temperature of the FE sector, to find out what people are thinking and where things are going, both from individual conversations and from the breakout sessions.

Everyone who attended the show will have come away with their own impressions, and much of what sticks in our minds will have been informed by our particular area of interest or expertise. For me, as someone who has for years been involved in helping colleges better understand and utilise Labour Market Information, there were four major takeaways from this year’s conference:

  1.   Ofsted’s new inspection framework for September 2015

  2.   UKCES Employer Perceptions Survey 2014

  3.   The Mindset‘s Student Employability Toolkit

  4.   The role of FE colleges in delivering higher level skills to meet emerging needs in local economies


In their breakout session, “A new inspection framework for September 2015”, Ofsted fleshed out the details of their current consultation, “Better Inspections for All“. The main proposals centre around the introduction of more frequent but shorter inspections for good schools and further education and skills providers, the idea being that such institutions should be encouraged to sustain their progress, rather than being allowed to falter.

A big emphasis of the new framework will be on curriculum, and in particular, “the relevance of courses and training in further education and skills,” and the “suitability of the curriculum and the type and range of courses and opportunities offered by providers.” Furthermore, inspectors are going to be looking for colleges to demonstrate that they:

“Provide a curriculum that has suitable breadth, depth and relevance so that it meets any relevant statutory requirements, as well as the needs and interests of children, learners, employers and the local community and nationally.”

For the FE sector, I think this marks a significant development. Until now, Ofsted has tended to look upon curriculums that are specially tailored to meet the needs of employers and the local community as exemplars of best practice. From September 2015 however, it is clear that this will change and Ofsted will be looking more specifically for colleges to demonstrate that their curriculum takes into account the needs of employers. All of which means that colleges – if they haven’t already done so – are going to have to take steps quite quickly to ensure that their course provision is meeting the needs of the local economy, which will naturally entail gaining a better understanding of what those needs actually are.


The same point of the necessity of relevant curriculum was brought out in a presentation by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), albeit from an entirely different perspective. The session focussed on their recent 2014 Employer Perspectives survey, and one of the many things that stood out from that survey was this:

“Employers tend to make their training choices based on the relevance of provision: 65 per cent of those choosing public providers chose their provider because their course offering was relevant.”

In other words, what Ofsted are shortly going to be requiring of colleges, employers are largely onto already. Of course this seems obvious when you think about it. Employers are looking for skilled workers, and so who are they going to use: the provider that puts on courses relevant to their needs, or the provider that is limited in its understanding of real local demand? Once again, this clearly shows the increasing importance of colleges becoming more acquainted with the needs of the local economy.

The Mindset ??

A really interesting session was that delivered by The Mindset entitled, “Addressing the uncomfortable truth around employability in further education colleges.” For those who aren’t aware of what The Mindset is all about, their website describes them as:

“A group of like-minded organisations who are committed to actively changing the perception and reality of the further education sector in preparing students for work. Formed by a group of FE colleges, alongside employability and recruitment experts, The REED NCFE Partnership, The Mindset works to assist further education colleges in pushing the employability agenda from within, for the benefit of their learners.”

In other words, the vision of The Mindset is to help colleges equip their students to become more employable, and to help them find sustainable employment.
To meet these aims, each member college has access to an online “Student Employability Toolkit” which, according to the website, is designed to “help the further education sector to marry college activities with the needs of local employers and ensuring that students have the right mindset and skills required by employers.”

At a time when employers are looking for people with not only the right skills, but also the right aptitude and general qualities, I am really impressed by the efforts being made by The Mindset to address these issues. I am also thrilled to see that they recognise the importance of good local Labour Market Information in this area, seeing this as one of eight critical steps to strong student employability. I think we are going to be hearing much more about The Mindset and how they are tackling the issue of employability over the coming years. I for one will be keeping a close eye on their progress and can count a number of EMSI customers at the forefront of this thinking.

FE colleges and higher level skills

Finally, it was clear to me that one of the overriding themes of the conference was that of the FE sector providing higher skills levels (level 4+) to meet emerging needs in local economies. This came out in a number of the main sessions, particularly in some of the comments made by MPs who were speaking. It is clear that politicians from all parties are hoping for – actually “expecting” would be a more accurate word – colleges to act as “Skills-Conduits” to employers in their area. What they are really thirsting for, is colleges that are willing to step up to the plate and find innovative solutions to supplying local and regional employers with the skilled workers they are need, and so fulfil their potential as economic dynamos. Needless to say, meeting this challenge necessarily involves colleges equipping themselves to a greater degree with an understanding of the needs of the economy they find themselves in.

So, much to take away, and much to be getting on with. And not much time to go before it is November again and we find ourselves heading back to Birmingham for AoC 2015!

Andy Durman is VP of UK operations for the labour market information firm Economic Modelling Specialists International

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