The FE and skills sector is in a precarious position and continues to climb El Capitan without any ropes. Although it has been under huge financial strain, suffered swinging cuts and subject of enormous policy instability for years, it can’t just give up. It has to adapt, keep on going and keeps its head.
With its face against the wall it can be hard to see into the future but if we fast-forward ten years, where will the sector be and how will it manage? It certainly won’t be free-soloing that’s for suere.
According to the think tank the Social Market Foundation (SMF), colleges and college groups should look to form larger "chains" if the FE sector is going to remain competitive and out-compete.
The Rising to the challenge report, sponsored by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), makes it very clear that the world of FE and skills needs to adapt and that doesn’t just mean some variation of the status quo and business as usual. It says that the decades of policy neglect and short-termism in UK politics has led to a fragile system with a costly impact on learners and communities.
Dame Ruth Silver, President of the FETL, notes the impact of this compound turbulence and says, “It is crucial to understand this febrile policy environment, the impact it has had on ordinary people’s lives, and the losses that have resulted.”
Four key market developments identified as "competitive threats to the sector" include competition and collaboration with schools, the apprenticeship levy, developments in educational technology, and Brexit.
Fresh Thinking: Tech Chains
Although change and adaptation are part of the DNA of FE and skills, there is always a need to become more entrepreneurial and adopt new ways of working.
Rising to the challenge sees a transition from physical learning and physical estates to virtual learning with combinations of colleges, independent providers and employers aggregating their capital, skills and marketing power to compete under one brand.
The report says that the FE and skills sector will have to compete with influential providers in the UK and internationally by providing distance and virtual learning. Technological developments have now basically eroded the importance of ‘place’ but although this is a threat, the FE and skills sector should embrace this as an opportunity to change and pitch to learners from beyond their localities.
Although there might be some resistance to digital education there should be more excitement than fear as a step-change is inevitable. Those that fail to place EdTech at their tactical core must prepare to flop.
The SMF say that two particular types of joint venture may increase the possibilities for the FE sector. One is to combine with EdTech partners and the other is for providers to combine themselves and scale up an adult skills offer to the national level. The report suggests colleges will have to think more radically and unite across regions and “could morph into a digital college.”
What else can the sector do?
Rising to the challenge also explains that there are two other areas where the FE and skills sector could develop:
- ‘Local Social Mobility Champions’
As the country reduces immigration and focuses more on domestic skills, the SMF envision that colleges together with independent providers could become local champions and engines of social mobility and proactively engage with the national deficiency in technical skills. They suggest that this could also involve helping drive the self-employed and local businesses up the value chain and creating opportunities to become hubs for start-ups as well as the one-stop shop for apprenticeships provision.
- Employer-embedded partnerships
Employers are now more in the driving seat and they are setting down the rules of engagement and asking what FE can do for them. This means FE is having to listen as they will find themselves being asked to build specific courses for particular companies.
The SMF believe that colleges and independent training providers will need to be more flexible and adjust to the skills needs of employers as they will exercise more strategic control of training under the Apprenticeship levy.
An increasingly ageing workforce is likely to need substantial re-training and there will be a greater need to incorporate learning in the workplace with the rise of Edtech. Employers may, therefore, form even richer ties with independent providers and colleges.
The Four Nations
Colleges across the Four Nations are creating a new Four Nations College Alliance and according to a new discussion paper Developing a Four Nations College Blueprint for a Post-Brexit Economy, there is “real value in building a new partnership, capitalising on the rich diversity of practice across the sector and helping us better define the future role of colleges in a modern economy.”
Written by further education leaders in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, this blueprint makes it a key aim for colleges to learn from one another, sharing practice and pooling knowledge and experience to improve the quality of our services to citizens and businesses.
Colleges across the UK are calling for “a new social partnership” because the UK’s success post-Brexit is relying on “a new social contract” and the delivery of a world-class technical and professional education system.
The FE and skills sector has to look ahead and respond to changing socio-technological imperatives and work alongside and in partnership with other providers and businesses. This means using technology in innovative and efficient ways, embracing ‘borderless’ education and establishing new partnerships.
It has to be pioneering and responsive to the needs of individuals and employers including reaching out into communities and workplaces and bringing learning to them. Despite the obvious needs to do so, too many colleges have been slow or unwilling to innovate. But this isn’t a choice. Forming college chains is a sensible, active and strategic response to living in an increasingly diverse and competitive market and that means fostering the power of partnerships and finding a new way to teach.
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.