Top of the pop-ups

After enduring decades of policy changes and uncertainty, FE is nothing if not adaptable. And in the grip of a funding squeeze, providers are finding ever more innovative ways of delivering learning. Here, George Ryan explains how temporary training sites in easily accessible locations are meeting employers needs and broadening the sector’s reach
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George Ryan


Top of the pop-ups

If any sector is used to uncertainty and short-term thinking, it's further education. Since the 1980s, FE has been shunted or split between government departments 11 times, and has come under the wing of almost 70 separate secretaries of state responsible for skills and employment policy. It's easy to see why those who have worked in the sector for some time see the prospect of coherent, strategic policymaking as remote.

This climate of perpetually resetting priorities and redrafting strategies has created a sector that is highly adaptable. And with long-term planning becoming ever more challenging, many providers have made a conscious decision to turn their backs on the received wisdom of education strategy and instead pursue strategies that are deliberately short-termist.

One consequence of this is the emergence of the "pop-up college". This term describes a training programme set up by a college or provider to meet a specific short- or medium-term economic need in the local area. These projects often involve learning taking place well away from the traditional college classroom, and have no pretensions of being made sustainable beyond a designated end date. They allow colleges and training providers flexibility to develop their provision in partnership with employers in a responsive way, without incurring long-term costs.

Many have sprung up next to building sites, linked with specific infrastructure projects. This approach has even grown to encompass traditional adult education evening classes being held in coffee shops, with providers able to attract learners who may be put off by more formal learning structures. So could this unapologetically transient provision offer a sign as to how the FE sector will evolve in the decades to come?

In a recent paper, Dame Ruth Silver, founding president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership, describes the sector as "a Rubik's cube of a thing, adept at dealing with colourful twists, turns and about-turns in policies, purses, politicians and partners".

The pop-up concept has a long-established history, she says, dating back to London colleges helping to provide skilled construction workers to build the Canary Wharf development during the 1980s and 90s. But for many institutions more used to permanent facilities and long-term planning, this approach could still be the "last place to experiment", she adds.

"A different way of delivering learning will breathe new ways of thinking and doing into the sector," Silver says. "You are not bound by the same rigidity. There is a lot of learning to be done here for the sector to be adaptable in a changing world."

'Less intimidating' setting

The pop-up college concept can also help providers to reach more diverse groups, Silver argues: "It can be less intimidating if the learning takes place outside of a college setting. It could be great for working mums if it took place at a primary school or doctor's surgery, for example."

As pop-up colleges go, Fareham College's Civil Engineering Training Centre (or CETC, for short) is as no-frills as it comes. The facility is identifiable only by a temporary sign at the entrance. The centre consists of two portable cabins and a dilapidated aircraft hangar built in 1921. Initially scheduled to be demolished in 1936, improbably the hangar is still in use some 82 years later. Scattered around the overgrown plot are areas where trainees and apprentices have been learning how to lay gravel paths and block paving. In the distance are traffic cones, spaced out to allow students to learn how to drive diggers.

CETC is unashamedly low budget. It featured nowhere in the college's long-term strategic plan; it was set up in a hurry to meet the needs of an industry that principal Nigel Duncan describes as "notoriously volatile and unpredictable". He leased the site from Gosport Borough Council for two years for the princely sum of £1. When the college vacates, it has agreed to demolish the hangar before it hands the site back to the council, leaving no trace behind.

"We have got to be more agile as a sector to compete with independent training providers and be more business-minded," Duncan says. "We want to pick up what training providers do well and tie it to the quality and experience you get in an FE college."

It was an approach from a company that led to the creation of CETC, Duncan explains.

"The college had no plans to deliver civil engineering training," he says, "But the compelling message from an ever-increasing number of employers became clear: if we could respond fast enough to demonstrate responsiveness and capacity, the employers would be willing to commit to a sustainable number of apprentices to justify the required initial set-up costs and ongoing investment." The centre was established within six months with an investment of £60,000 plus staffing. The programme has been such a success that it has received a capital grant from the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to establish a permanent facility.

Other pop-up colleges have sprung up to service specific infrastructure projects. Take the one at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club: the North London club is rebuilding its ground at White Hart Lane and has enlisted the help of three nearby colleges to train skilled workers to construct a 61,000-seat stadium, which is now nearing completion. Tottenham Hotspur Construction Academy has worked with Barnet and Southgate, Hertford Regional and Waltham Forest colleges to train up the workforce needed to build the huge stadium.

But it is not just on construction sites where pop-up colleges can flourish. The concept offers a potential solution for the problem of reaching disengaged adult learners. Sometimes simply creating opportunities to learn in the places where people spend their free time - such as cafés and shops - can be enough to ignite a love of learning.

Taking the first step

Weymouth College has embraced this principle by creating a permanent campus in the town centre. Heather Thompson, a careers adviser, says of the facility: "It's beneficial because it is easily accessible. It's small and not as intimidating as large college campuses can be." She explains that word of mouth about its location, just a stone's throw from the beach, helps to bring new learners in off the streets.

Nestled among the fish and chip restaurants and quaint seaside shops in the Dorset town, the "campus" is in fact a converted shop that delivers provision on site for learners who might otherwise miss out, offering functional skills courses for adults to help them take that first step back into education or work.

This is by no means the only attempt to bring FE to the high street. The PopUp College project was launched last year by entrepreneur Jason Elsom, who partnered providers with nearby branches of Costa Coffee that hosted after-hours evening classes for learners more comfortable with sipping a cappuccino than sitting in a classroom.

By January 2017, 15 colleges across England were on board. But this week there were no courses listed on the project's website, and Elsom was unavailable for comment.

Offering classes in town centre locations, though, could make learning accessible to a whole new set of students who would not be able to travel to a college classroom.

In the 2015 report The Future High Street, published by the Future Spaces Foundation, author Keith Clarke, former chief executive of design and engineering consultancy W S Atkins, wrote: "Further education colleges need to be located at the heart of urban communities to ensure students can afford to travel, in time or money, to their classes … Amid high transport costs, young people need to be able to access these opportunities easily, while adult learners need to be able to reach these opportunities in areas close to the principal areas of employment."

The approach also has the support of the LEP Network. These partnerships "constantly monitor and react to local labour market needs, and listen to what their local businesses are telling them on the ground", says communications manager Mike Dennehy. "That includes combining short-term demands with the longer term look ahead at the skills people will need in the future."

Professor Ewart Keep, director of the University of Oxford's Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, says the frequent shifts in the government's priorities have forced colleges to be "very fleet of foot". The precarious nature of some funding streams, not least the adult education budget and the non-levy apprenticeship tender, have also necessitated the ability to change provision at short notice.

So, rather than being innovative exceptions to the risk-averse norms that still dominate FE, could pop-up colleges start to become more commonplace?

Keep has his doubts. "The funding system we have at the moment doesn't produce that model of provision," he says. "Longer-term needs are much easier to deal with and there is less financial risk attached."

George Ryan is an FE reporter for Tes. He tweets @GeorgeMRyan

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