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Further Education (FE) colleges can be crucial hubs within integrated skills and employment systems

By Chris Green, PA Government EXPERT

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PA Consulting Group and PublicCo met recently with CollabGroup principals to discuss their shared vision for their colleges. We believe that CollabGroup Colleges – due to their size, capabilities and innovative nature – can be crucial hubs within integrated skills and employment systems, at local, city and regional levels.

The Further Education (FE) sector is critical to the Government strategy of raising productivity and generating economic growth. PA has been working with PublicCo to support leaders in FE Colleges to undertake ‘design led change’ in response to the challenges posed by Area Reviews and to take advantage of the opportunities they create. CollabGroup represents 36 of the leading FE Colleges from across the UK, and working with them is an ideal opportunity to learn about the challenges and opportunities in the sector.

What are colleges for? Too often, further education is defined by what it is not – not school, not university. Despite the fact that colleges have been at the heart of our communities for decades, we still lack a basic national understanding of what FE is and what it does.  

Our shared vision is that FE colleges are about work. They provide learners with the full range of skills that they need to enter the labour market for the first time and at subsequent times, and with support to progress in their jobs and careers. They enable employers to find people with the right skills and develop their employees. They help local and central government to achieve their employment and wider economic objectives.

Large, highly capable and innovative, CollabGroup Colleges can be crucial hubs within integrated skills and employment systems, at local, city and regional levels. To a considerable extent, they already are, but this vision is not fully realised yet. The vision also needs to evolve, as learners and employers are given more choice and control, as devolution moves forward and as globalisation and technology continue to change the ways in which we work and learn. Below, we briefly describe four key dimensions in which FE colleges can play this integrating role.     
1. World class technical education and social and emotional skills 

As the Sainsbury Review and the Post-16 Skills Plan made clear, putting in place the right system of technical education remains a very high priority for government. Colleges, working in close partnership with employers, need to be at the heart of shaping and delivering the new technical routes, as well as the new apprenticeship system. At the same time, employers continue to stress the value to them of recruits with social and emotional skills, such as teamworking, adaptability and resilience. FE Colleges, with their longstanding commitment to providing people of all ages with education for life, have a crucial role to play here.  

2. Supporting people to enter work and to progress in work 

Most learners in FE are studying because they want a job, a better job or a career. Colleges need to respond to learners’ aspirations, offering careers rather than courses.  Where employers are actively nurturing their talent, then support for learners’ progression is also support for employers’ workforce development strategies, so colleges need to be equally skilled at serving both of these customers. Not all learners have that kind of relationship with an employer, however. Our skills and employment systems also need to develop models for supporting progression that work for the growing self-employed workforce and that enable people to move out of in-work poverty.  

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3. Solutions for large or global employers and small, local employers

The market for learning is feeling the impact of globalisation.  International customers are giving rise to international markets for learning provision and creating new sources of competition. Globalisation also offers opportunities to generate income and develop new approaches by delivering services overseas.  Nevertheless, small employers are of course the large majority.  As well as delivering the customised workforce development solutions that some large employers are looking for, FE colleges need to deliver in a way that works for small businesses without dedicated human resource functions, for whom simplicity, low cost and local relationships are key. 

4. Responding to demand and shaping places

Changes to the ways in which FE is funded and regulated will make it more important than ever for Collab Group Colleges to respond to demand from employers and learners.  Apprenticeship reforms will give employers direct control over funding and the choice of provider. Small employers will need to co-invest in order to access apprenticeship funding, and large employers will sometimes choose to co-invest in bespoke training programmes or facilities. Both will need to be convinced that their learning providers can deliver what they need. Learners too are presented with a choice of different types of provider, of which colleges are just one. Loan funded learning is a key opportunity for Collab Group Colleges, but for this to expand, learners will need to be convinced that the learning will lead to a well paid job. 

Being responsive to demand is not enough, however. More than ever, devolution is challenging local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and other stakeholders to work together to develop and implement strategies for stronger local economies and communities and to find ways of delivering services more efficiently. That includes devolution of the adult education budget, in some areas. Joining up the skills and employment system should be a key component of these efforts to shape places – and FE colleges should be key actors.

In conclusion...

PA Consulting Group, PublicCo and CollabGroup believe that FE colleges can be crucial hubs within integrated skills and employment systems. CollabGroup Colleges in particular are in a unique position to contribute to forthcoming devolution deals, as no other organisation has the same breadth of capabilities and relationships, or the potential to play such a central role in joining up local skills and employment systems.


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