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'A commercial approach to education is vital if we are to build skills'

Fintan Donohue, chief executive of the Gazelle Colleges Group, writes:

Last month during party conference season we witnessed a promising degree of consensus among the major political parties with regards to the importance of apprenticeships

Both Labour and the Conservatives committed to a substantial expansion of apprenticeships during the next Parliament, while the Liberal Democrats promised to increase their pay.

It is encouraging to see that apprenticeships are high on the political agenda, but this needs to be supplemented by a recognition of the value of entrepreneurial and hands-on learning in its entirety. The environment that our students are faced with today is constantly changing, and our education sector has to change to enable future generations to keep up. 

At Gazelle, we believe that an education sector that provides commercial learning opportunities offers future generations the best possible chance of success when it comes to entering a dynamic and challenging job market.

Hands-on learning and gaining experience of ‘real-life’ business scenarios represent the key, whether students harbour ambitions of starting their own business or progressing within an already established business.

Whether this experience is gained through an apprenticeship or through other means, such as entrepreneurial competitions or by working in a college-owned learning company, it will produce students that are more prepared for the world of work, more confident and adaptable to the demands of a commercial environment.

Next week Gazelle will be celebrating young entrepreneurs from across the UK at the ‘Market Maker’ final, held at the Institute of Directors. This year, more than 1,300 college students have been part of teams that have created their own businesses and marketed their products on a virtual platform designed by the City University of New York. The competition gives students the opportunity to develop skills that traditional education doesn’t offer and to gain experience of turning their ideas into viable businesses.

At a time of unprecedented change in our economy, development of entrepreneurial attitudes and commercial know-how throughout our education system is vital in supporting youth employment and building the skilled workforce that will power our economy.

For the best possible chance of success, the private sector needs to be brought onside, as demonstrated by the success of the government’s apprenticeships trailblazers programme.

While major employers are undoubtedly important, small and medium-sized businesses have an equal role to play. Smaller firms often don’t have the time or resources to manage their own independent programmes themselves, yet in partnership with local further education colleges these firms provide fantastic opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience and become a valued member of a smaller organization.

In partnership with industry, colleges should be at the heart of a skills-based education policy. Further education colleges posses the expertise and experience that comes with a long tradition of providing technical and vocational education, and are ideally placed to deliver the skills that businesses need.

We need to build on this initial step and recognise the importance of the whole further education and skills-based learning sector in dealing with the challenges our economy is facing by placing education in a commercial context and better preparing our students for the world of work.

Preparing our students for the jobs of the future is first and foremost the responsibility of the colleges, and at present both colleges and their students face a challenging and changing world.

However this challenge also represents an opportunity for a change in focus toward a more commercial approach and an embrace of entrepreneurship, both in terms of the students and the colleges themselves. If students are trained in the skills required to work for themselves or a small business, and colleges can foster relationships with employees that will be beneficial for all, we will move closer to providing students with the skills they need to forge successful careers. 

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