Will the post-16 education review ‘fix the foundations’?

Blog by Activate Learning Group Chief Executive Sally Dicketts.
Folllow Sally on twitter @sallydicketts

Foundations

Last week the government released the first details of its national review of post-16 education.

The 10-page report sets out a plan for “fewer, more resilient and efficient providers” which could include new Institutes of Technology and National Colleges providing training in industry specialisms.

The proposals stem the Government’s productivity plan – Fixing the Foundations – which aims to create a more prosperous and productive Britain.

While the detail on such sweeping reforms is scant at this early stage, we know that the vision will be achieved via a national programme of area-based reviews, starting in September.

Area-based reviews are not new to the sector, but they haven’t before been driven through with such an imperative for colleges to collaborate and merge.

Merger is part of our history at Activate Learning, where three colleges are now part of one group with centralised support services.

However, in the current climate I would question whether merger is always the best route for colleges needing to improve effectiveness and financial stability.

I believe we should consider the following through the process of review:

  • Can advances in technology enable colleges to work more effectively together? In the last decade there have been major strides in technologies which enable staff and students to work collaboratively. Virtual reality is increasingly being used to simulate real working environments, reducing the costs of the physical environment and facilities. As we seek to develop national centres of excellence, we should consider how technology can facilitate and improve access to this expertise and enable providers to do more for less.
  • Demographics are not fixed. While some colleges are facing a declining 16-19 population, that won’t always be the case. There is a bulge coming through primary schools that will need to access an appropriate education within 10 years. I would not want to see a drastic cutting back of provision which then needs to be poised for growth as soon as the process is complete.
  • Geography isn’t the only driver. While area-based reviews may suggest that providers join forces because of county boundaries or the organisation of LEPs, as anyone who has been through a merger will know success hinges on much more than the convenience of location. Organisations need to have a cultural fit and to be equally committed to the changes. They also need to unite around an approach to learning that can become a common characteristic of an otherwise disparate group.
  • How should new, larger colleges, deliver their specialisms? At Activate Learning we are adopting a faculty-based approach which will see our three colleges working more closely together through professional learning communities. This approach will ensure consistency in the quality of teaching and learning across the same discipline in each centre. It will also enable teachers to specialise in their field of expertise – whether that is connecting with industry; using this knowledge to design the curriculum or deliver teaching and learning in the classroom. A faculty-based approach could offer learners easier access to a new network of specialist national centres.
  • What about level 2? There is an absolute focus on raising the quality of post-16 provision and the government paper references the desire for high quality provision at levels 3, 4 and 5. In overlooking level 2 qualifications my concern is that a swathe of Britain’s young people will fall through the cracks. If the new National Colleges focus on levels 3 and above we still need colleges which can provide a training ground to prepare students for success at level 3 and beyond.

There will no doubt be much more debate in the sector as more details of the reviews emerge. Regardless of tight time frames we need to make careful decisions if we are to ensure that changes made now do indeed fix the foundations for the country’s future growth and skills needs.

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