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Disgusted by repeated failure of training audits

More research - this time by the Further Education Development Agency - highlighting the continued failure of most colleges to identify the training needs of local business was gloomy reading.

I do not doubt the accuracy of the findings or the conclusion drawn from them (TES, April 12). However, I am dismayed by the lack of meaningful strategies being formulated to address shortcomings.

Suggesting the creation of college sales teams, introducing a system to record contact between staff and industry, or forming a dedicated business unit have been familiar activities to me in all the colleges I have worked in. The results have fostered the provision of relevant and cost-effective training to meet business demands.

However, still we learn of the inability of the education system to provide Britain with the basic skills needed for commercial success. It is easy to call for "industry link audits" to assess the effectiveness of college courses and the steps required to improve it. What is now necessary is to develop an appropriate strategy to encourage and allow colleges to do this on the scale required.

Training and enterprise councils must share some responsibility. Their reason for existing is surely to determine, stimulate and meet training needs. I have lost count of the number of "innovative bids" I have been required to make in order to secure pump-priming funding. It all seems to little or no avail.

Now there are other players in the field. County councils, local authorities and district councils are beavering away at their economic development strategies.

These combined with TEC corporate plans and college strategic plans mean there is no shortage of paperwork detailing the way forward for prosperity. All very laudable and certainly such plans appear to satisfy Government legislators and paymasters, but try selling them to small firms who, as the FEDA report says, "often lack the resources to develop training".

So back to colleges. "They need to take the lead in stimulating demand for their training. They should try to anticipate change and adapt to meet it. Flexibility is particularly important if the needs of small firms are to be met," the report says. I would not argue with that having recently been engaged in an engineering-industry links audit in my college catchment area.

Undertaking the necessary market research was time-consuming and labour-intensive even though the starting point was indeed a piece of research commissioned by the local TEC a year earlier. How much more timely and cost-effective it would have been had we worked in tandem. Unfortunately the college was unaware that the original research was being undertaken. More surprisingly, as a key training provider, the college was not even approached to contribute to the work. So much for corporate planning.

I am certain many other senior college managers will identify with this scenario and recount similar frustrations.

Of equal concern is the Further Education Funding Council inspectors' claim that colleges give insufficient consideration to industry. My experience, of only a cursory glance being given to this work during inspection, leads me to treat this withdisdain. It is not clear to me how general statements, bound in glossy brochures, that purport to reflect the state of play in the sector are helping to improve the situation. Perhaps inspection funding would be better channelled into assisting colleges to overcome perceived weaknesses.

What needs to be read into this is the decline in large companies requiring and using day-release and block college courses. This provision was the yardstick by which colleges measured their success at meeting industry's needs. It was the bread and butter of FE training.

Today colleges are facing at least two key challenges. First, to enter meaningful dialogue with the plethora of small, specialised firms which have sprung up in their communities. To understand and tackle these needs is a far cry from holding regular meetings with the training or personnel manager of a large company. The other is grappling with implementing national vocational qualifications and general national vocational qualifications.

I endorse the view of FEDA chief executive Stephen Crowne. "It is not enough for colleges to be responsive," he said. Surely what is required now is less of the blame culture and more corporate effort and energy from researchers, industrialists and further education practitioners to identify those skills needed for economic prosperity by looking at the needs of small firms and the self-employed.

To this end colleges should be in pole position to mobilise both physical and human resources. Their willingness to do so will, of course, depend on the return they can expect from such an investment. The short-term priority to drive down the average level of unit funding may not sit comfortably with the financial outlay clearly required to compile and interpret long-term labour market intelligence. Sharing the cost among the relevant agencies may seem obvious but the current era of competitiveness seems not to value that level of collaboration. A change here could help in setting and achieving national training targets rather than constantly analysing why we fail to do so.

Elizabeth Blakemore is vice-principal of Cricklade College, Andover

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