My overwhelming impression when reading through this eagerly anticipated White Paper is a sense of real validation for the FE sector.
Much of what we have been doing and working towards for many years has formed the basis of this "new" strategy – and it is highly encouraging to see that colleges are to be supported to build on this success as opposed to being forced down a new track.
"Putting employers at the heart of technical education and training", for example, is not a new idea by any means and is a mantra of failed policy rhetoric over many years. Like many colleges, we have focused on this for some time and have seen real benefits and positive results of employer-designed curricula in terms of student progression and job outcomes. So "what will be different this time?" is a question I am already asking myself.
Post-16 reform: The announcements at a glance
FE White Paper: Government to ‘overhaul’ accountability
Equipping people with the skills that businesses need should be (and is, of course) a clear focus of further education – so the inclusion of this commitment in the White Paper is encouraging to see, albeit it not revolutionary or new.
Other highlights we can look forward to include some great proposals (which I hope the sector will be consulted on the implementation of) such as: simplified funding, flexible student finance, investing in professional development, and attracting more talent into the sector. These are things we have all been calling for, which will absolutely help to improve outcomes, open education up to more people and strengthen provision.
FE White Paper: The importance of careers education
In terms of higher technical education, this is a potentially exciting time for HE delivery within FE. Expanding higher technical qualifications and making level 4 and 5 study options more flexible for people will have a hugely positive impact on widening participation. A continued commitment to T levels and clear progression from them will benefit employers and students alike; ensuring true recognition for the standard and quality of these technical pathways.
While it is disappointing that, owing to the pandemic, only an "interim" conclusion of the Augar review of post-18 education and funding has been published, the introduction of a "modular" HE offer is encouraging. With the world changing so quickly, people need the chance to upskill at any point in their career and in as flexible a way as possible. The acknowledgement of the importance of helping people to achieve high-quality technical skills is welcomed, but further work must now follow to cement this into real action.
What’s vital right now is that the improved articulation of employer need is coupled with an economic recovery that opens up opportunities for people of all ages. Fixing the supply of skills is only part of a much wider picture. As a sector, we need confidence that new industries, such as green, health and digital technologies, will be supported to flourish and provide a thriving landscape for people to seek careers.
This means that careers education must be centre stage, beyond simply improving the National Careers Service website and aligning it with the Careers and Enterprise Company. We also need to ensure that "stronger implementation of the Baker Clause" means just that – a crucial tool in order to ensure young people are fully aware of all the options open to them at age 16 or 18 and, indeed, beyond.
We must also equip people with the entrepreneurial skills they need to create jobs and develop their own businesses; giving rise to a generation that has the means and desire to generate wealth and support the economy.
As was highlighted in the Independent Commission on the College of the Future report last year, colleges should be supported to become "anchor Institutions" within their communities and local economies – offering much more than just qualifications. This is something we have been focusing on as a college, ensuring we add maximum social value and fully understand the challenges facing our stakeholders, employers, staff and student body. The White Paper goes someway to providing the autonomy and accountability that colleges need in order to stake out their crucial local role.
The sense of optimism and scepticism that I imagine most stakeholders within FE are feeling with the launch of the White Paper needs to be ameliorated with a balanced force of ‘realistic optimism’ (as identified by Dr Dan Harrison in his "Paradox of Strategic Acumen") and we cannot get bowled over by what is undoubtedly a very positive strategy and a good day for the FE sector. We understand limitations and acknowledge negativity, without dwelling on these things. While we know there will be obstacles, we understand the capacity for growth, are confident that success is possible and will work hard to make it happen.
FE’s adaptability, agility and foresight over many years have absolutely been recognised in this White Paper, so let’s now seize on this genuine opportunity and get the job done.
Dr Sam Parrett is chief executive of London & South East Education Group.