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The FE news blog

Welcome to the new FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

Welcome to the new FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

International horizons expand yet further - January 21 2013

The FE sector is leading the way in terms of international expansion, it would seem.

As TES revealed earlier this month, the Association of Colleges is working with several of its members to move into India, and help meet the subcontinent's skills shortage. Indeed, FE minister Matthew Hancock will even be launching the programme in India on Wednesday.

And last week we reported New College Nottingham is going further (see below).

Now there's even more. Today it was announced that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Trade amp; Investment - the government-run agency that aims to help British interests abroad - are to create Education UK, a new government unit to "capatalise on thegrowth of demand for UK education from abroad". According to BIS, education exports are currently worth pound;14 billion to the UK, but this could rise to pound;21.5 billion by 2020.

"It is essential that we realise the potential of the largely untapped resource that is our education exports," Mr Hancock said. "There is a fast-growing demand for high-quality education, and we are lucky to have a dynamic and entrepreneurial sector that is well placed to contribute.

"We are in a global race and other countries are presenting attractive and coordinated offers, so Education UK is a vital step in bringing together the UK sector to drive its international engagement, particularly on high-value opportunities."

While British universities and some exclusive independent schools have for a number of years operated campuses overseas, ministers clearly believe there is more to be done to promote our education system abroad. And the FE sector seems to be at the vanguard of this ambitious expansion programme. Good news all round.

Stephen Exley

New College Nottingham gets in early with Indian offshoot, but is it worth the cost? - January 18 2013

While Britain freezes, colleges are gearing up for the warmer climes of New Delhi, where they will launch their collaborative attempt to crack India's enormous skills market.

About 30 colleges are supporting an office in India's capital, where they will try to strike deals with government and employers to offer training. But New College Nottingham has got ahead of the pack and on Tuesday will formally open its first training centre.

Arriving slightly overhyped as "India's first vocational training academy" - initiatives involving organisations from Volkswagen to City and Guilds predate it - it nevertheless shows that large Indian companies are keen to work with UK colleges.

Batra Group, which may not be a household name in the UK but is the owner of the Fila sportswear brand among others, has paid for a campus that can cater for 1,000 students a year studying hospitality management, interactive media, fashion and retail. The college will provide teaching, curriculum design and quality assurance.

A thousand students a year is, of course, just a drop in the ocean of India's ambition: the country intends to train 500 million people by 2022. But principal Amarjit Basi says he intends to develop academies in other cities, covering industries such as construction and engineering.

Colleges have been criticised by Ofsted for putting energy into international work when the quality of teaching demands attention. But with public funding reduced and visa regulations curtailing student recruitment, making a mark on India may be an important way to support education back home.

Joseph Lee (@josephlee)

Progress in stamping out homophobia gains recognition, but still more to do - January 17 2013

Some good news today for the sector, as it emerged that an FE college has won a place on the list of 100 most gay-friendly employers in the country.

Newham College in East London was ranked in joint 32nd place - along with corporate giants Morgan Stanley and Aviva - in the Stonewall top 100 employers in Britain for lesbian, gay andbisexual people in 2013.

This news follows a significant reduction in the amount of homophobia experienced by learners throughout the FE sector in recent years. Back in 2006, a report by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership found high rates of homophobic harassment and bullying among staff and students.

A more recent survey by the Skills Funding Agency in 2011 found things had improved somewhat, with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) adults studying in FE rated colleges 7.5 out of 10 on a scale where 10 equated to "extremely welcoming". However the report found there was still work to do, with almost one in six gay students saying they had been bullied because of their sexual orientation.

Here's hoping that Newham College's success will inspire others in the sector to do their bit to stamp out discrimination once and for all.

Stephen Exley

Is the National Union of Students about to get its first non-uni leader? - January 16 2013

With FE vice-president Toni Pearce announcing her candidacythis week, will the National Union of Students for the first time get a president who has not attended university?

If so, it will be at the second time of asking, after her predecessor as V-P, Shane Chowen, just missed out to current president Liam Burns in the election two years ago. But this time, Mr Burns is backing the FE candidate, along with an impressive roster of elected officials and activists in the union.

Does it matter? There's a couple of reasons why it might. The first is that it's a reflection of how far the NUS has changed. Ms Pearce isn't an outsider trying to put FE's case to an indifferent institution - which might have been the case ten years ago.

The NUS overhauled itself to ensure its FE representation improved, first by only allowing FE members to vote for their vice-president, and then by electing a series of motivated college students who went about dramatically increasing the visibility and importance of education outside universities within the union.

If that can be achieved in the student representative body, why not in the wider educational culture?

The NUS president is a national figure with a media profile, and often a stepping stone to political office. So while politicians may lament about "the forgotten 50 per cent", they'd be that bit harder tooverlook if students decide to elect Ms Pearce.

Joseph Lee (@josephlee)

Could placing apprenticeship applications in the hands of UCAS be a major step forward? - January 15 2013

The love-in between Lord Adonis and the coalition Government on vocational education has already given us the technical baccalaureate. Now the former education minister is calling for UCAS to be given responsibility for apprenticeship applications, to an enthusiastic response from ministers.

In a comment piece in the FT today, Lord Adonis says that the information about apprenticeships is poor and that putting UCAS in charge would solve the problem. Indeed, he first floated the idea at our very own London Festival of Education last November.

"It would help give a rocket boost to youth apprenticeships and enable school leavers to apply both for university and apprenticeship places in tandem," he said. HE minister David Willetts told the FT's education editor Chris Cook he'd pursue the idea in his next meeting with UCAS, which is reportedly happy to take on the role.

There's something to be said for a single application process for all school leavers: UCAS has been gesturing in this direction for a while, with UCAS Progress, which was intended to incorporate all the options from 14 to 19, although so far hasn't included work-based options.

We've already got one experiment with an HE body adapting to the demands of year-round FE applications: the Student Loans Company and advanced learning loans. Some might feel we should wait and see how that turns out.

If the idea does progress, however, a crucial question will be whether UCAS adapts to apprenticeships or whether apprenticeships adapt to UCAS. Part of the benefit in terms of visibility and status might be lost if apprenticeship applications take place throughout the year, while university places are restricted to January applications for an autumn start.

The UCAS deadline and the wait for A-level results are parts of the national calendar. But a constant trickle of apprenticeship offers throughout the year is too diffuse to attract as much attention.

According to the National Apprenticeship Service, the peak time for applications is in July, with a one-day spike after A-level results day in August. The peak time for vacancies is in May.

So with a little adjustment, there may be some potential to create a single point in the year for apprenticeship applications, at least for larger companies where there is a predictable demand for labour: an apprentice version of the graduate milk round.

The danger would be that apprenticeships at small businesses or those offered at others times of the year become even less visible as a result. But the milk round seems to happily coexist with other types of graduate recruitment.

Newspapers filling their pages with leaping blonde girls on A-level results day is such a clich that complaining about it is a clich, but it would be a nice change if they were instead celebrating their apprenticeship places at Rolls Royce. If we can't beat them, maybe we should join them.

Joseph Lee (@josephlee)

Lawyers respond to the idea of legal apprentices with an "Um, maybe" - January 11 2013

When the development of apprenticeships at the equivalent of master's degree level was announced last month, the powers that be said that it would help young people receive on-the-job training for the professions at top companies.

But are top companies at all interested in an alternative to graduate recruitment? The answer, courtesy of Legal Week's Big Question, is a resounding "sort of".

In some respects there's surprisingly little prejudice from top law firms and a fair degree of in-principle enthusiasm. Two-thirds thought it was important to build credible work-based routes into qualifying as a lawyer.

As Will Lawes, a senior partner at Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer, put it: "We believe recruiting people from the most diverse sources is a real strength. If apprenticeships help in taking the high costs of legal education off the shoulders of future lawyers, that is likely to be a positive thing. In many ways, the apprenticeship model is the way people learn in our firm in any event."

Contrary to their popular image as heartless sharks, lawyers apparently do care about social mobility, and half of them thought apprenticeships would be effective or very effective in improving it within the profession.

However, Legal Week suggests lawyers are "downbeat" about the chances of apprentices succeeding when they say that 48 per cent believed that university-track lawyers would be more successful. But in the opinion of FE Focus for 43 per cent to say that apprentices would be "about the same" isn't bad for a new and untried qualification route. Nearly one in ten mavericks thought they would actually be better than graduates.

The real catch is who says they will employ apprentices. Only four per cent believed big City firms would hire apprentices, and most seemed to think the route would be best suited for high street and small firms.

Still, that's a start. And if that four per cent can get some apprentices through the door of prestige firms, the apprentices may do well enough to convince the rest. As Norton Rose chairman Stephen Parish told Legal Week: "The previous system of permitting non-graduate entry did not appear to cause a two-tier profession. Indeed, many of the legal greats of that generation did not go to university."

Joseph Lee (@josephlee)

Flexible traineeships will be welcomed, but what about mentoring? - January 08 2012

There's not too detail in the discussion paper on traineeships published today about what the proposed new programme of study will include - and that's deliberate.

Beyond some core basics, Government wants the traineeships to be as flexible as possible. All it prescribes is that traineeships should include level two English and maths for those who do not havethem, along with training in employability skills and work experience.

The decision is partly based on an OECD study of what works in helping young people into work, which found that the best approaches involved different services working together in support of trainees, providing literacy and numeracy, relevant vocational education, work experience and mentoring, in an individually-tailored package.

The "individually-tailored" part means there's no specified requirements for vocational education, for instance. That may make sense, although this "black box" aspect has not been a success so far in the Work Programme.

Also, what about the more nebulous elements that seem so important in helping unprepared young people into work, such as mentoring?

Case studies provided by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills highlight the issue. They come from a programme run by PM Training, the education arm of the Aspire Housing, which the department believes has some of the characteristics it wants to see in traineeships. In all of them, emotional problems had to be overcome for the students to improve their educational achievement.

One student suffered from a crippling lack of confidence, and refused to do anything without a friend. Another was angry and defensive after the trauma of seeing a friend become the victim of a horrific accident.

In perhaps the most striking case, 16-year-old Steven Ellis had no qualifications from school, suffered from stress and sometimes acted aggressively. Staff found out that he was the sole carer for his mother (his father had died three years earlier). She had a chronic illness, and he often became upset when she relapsed.

They organised counselling for him, and having built strong relationships with his supervisors, he went on to complete an apprenticeship to such a high standard that he won a gold medal at Worldskills UK.

This kind of mentoring, counselling and emotional support is hard to capture in qualifications.

So will it be available to all trainees, even the over-19s?

Joseph Lee

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No. it's an FE policy changed following consultation - January 08 2013

To education watchers, it is like a unicorn crossing your path. But the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) has produced that mostrarest of sightings: a consultation which fundamentally changed the policy proposal.

Following interventions by several organisations over the redesigned level 5 diploma, proposed as the new gold standard qualification for FE teachers, LSIS has had a rethink and now plans to double it in size from 60 credits to 120, equal to a schools' PGCE.

Organisations such as the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers had argued that the smaller qualification wouldn't be able to cover the necessary content and would damage the reputation of FE - already branded by Ofsted as a poor performer in teaching quality.

Today, UCET's executive director James Noble-Rogers praised LSIS for making the change. "All credit to them for listening to the sector," he said, noting that it was rare to see specific proposals changed in this way.

But why is change so rare in consultations? Well, one reason might be the way respondants are weighted, with all responses - be they the Association of Colleges (AOC) or a fully signed up member of the green-letter brigade - being counted as equal.

So while ordinary teachers and college leaders assume that they are represented by the organisations they pay torepresent them, whether it's the AOC or the University and College Union or someone else, with the help of a few loners, a Government can claim support for whatever it likes. A cautionary tale.

Joseph Lee

FE, the new home of scholarly research. Especially when it comes to landmines - January 07 2013

The first application for full degree-awarding powers in FE may have foundered over concerns aboutthe level of scholarly activity but one college is showing how FE can be the home of scientific and engineering research.

As the TES reported in July last year, Furness College has hired three dedicated research staff, who will work on its initiatives in areas ranging fromwind powerto landmine detection.

At the time, the college said it wanted to focus on developing practical applications of research. Now it's unveiled one of the first fruits of its efforts: a prototype for a new landmine detector.

Ken Seddon, the college's head of technical engineering, said that until now, landmine detection had remained more or less the same since the Second World War, involving a risky and time consuming testing of the ground with bayonets. But the college's new detector, designed with the help of graduate students, identifies a "unique acoustic signature" of the mines, so soldiers don't have to waste time digging upsuspicious objects that turn out to bemerely tree roots or debris.

The project was funded by Find A Better Way, a charity founded by Sir Bobby Charlton after he saw the plight of children affected by landmines in Bosnia and Cambodia. It says that to clear the world of the 110 million active landmines usingexisting methods would cost $30 billion and take 1,000 years - underlining the importance of breakthroughs such as this one at Furness College.

The whole FE sector can be proud of this one.

New year, new FE Focus - January 04 2012

Congratulations, citizens of FE: you've been promoted.

When delivering Ofsted's annual report back in November, it's fair to say that chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw was less than complimentary about the quality of FE provision. But he did make another important point: it was, he said, time to "shine a light" on the sector. On this issue at least, we at the TES agree entirely.

Since our relaunch in 2011, FE Focus has resided at the back of the magazine. Not any more. As of today, we've brought it forward into the main news section. No longer do you have to leaf your way through the entire magazine to find the latest exclusive FE news and analysis.

We decided the time was right to give the sector a more prominent place in TES - together with this FE portal and news blog, updated throughout the week - to reflect its growing importance in the wider education world.

This week, for instance, we have exclusive news stories about the move by English and Welsh colleges to help meet India's growing demand for vocational skills and the spat between colleges and the University and College Union over staff workloads which is threatening to spiral into industrial action. You can also read about the pound;91 million colleges received for students they never enrolled. This is on top of your weekly dose of FE funnies in FErret.

From now on, FE comment pieces - such as these week's offerings from the RSA's Matthew Taylor on college recruitment of 14-year-olds - will live in the Comment section, logically enough.

We hope you like our new look. Do let us know what you think.

National pay bargaining adopted. In Scottish colleges - January 03 2012

Education secretary Michael Gove is planning to "effectively demolish the national pay framework" for teachers in English schools by overhauling the main scale and linking pay more closely with performance. At least that's how NUT general secretary Christine Blower has described it.

But FE colleges north of the border are making an unprecedented move in the opposite direction. After 20 years of Scottish colleges setting their own pay and conditions for staff, much like their counterparts in England, the Scottish government has decided to return to a system of national pay bargaining.

This comes at a time of upheaval for the 40 colleges in Scotland. A number are currently undergoing mergers as part of a massive reorganisation prompted by the government's decision to cut the sector's funding by pound;74 million - or 24 per cent in real terms - by 201415. Scottish education secretary Mike Russell said this was an "opportunity to make progress, based on consensus, towards a sensible system of national bargaining".

South of the border, colleges are also facing swingeing cuts. But the solution being adopted by the Scottish National Party administration is radically different from the system in place in England. While the Association of Colleges engages in national negotiations with the unions representing staff in the sector, it is down to individual colleges to decide whether to pass any pay rise on to staff.

The move has been welcomed by Larry Flanaghan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the country's largest teaching union. He has criticised "glaring differences" between the terms enjoyed by staff in different institutions, not least a pound;5,000 pay gap between some lecturers doing the same job in different colleges.

No doubt the unions representing English lecturers would be delighted to see the Westminster government take the same step. But given Mr Gove's effective declaration of war on the education trade union movement before Christmas, they would be well advised not to hold their breath.

Happy Christmas everyone and see you in the New Year - December 20 2012

It's been another year of high drama in the world of FE. We've seen ministers come and go, new policies aplenty - and even outspoken Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw targeting his ire at colleges.

At the FE Focus news blog, we reckon that's been enough excitement for anyone. Accordingly, then, we're signing off for 2012. But don't worry - we'll be back bright and early in January. We'd like to wish all of our readers a happy Christmas, and a prosperous New Year.

You wait for one FE hashtag to come along and then two appear at once - December 19 2012

The Skills Funding Agency has unveiled a plan to generate oodles of positive publicity for the sector. It is - drum-roll - a Twitter hashtag. The SFA is apparently going to "tell the FE story" by asking learners to share the sector's success stories using the #FE4me.

The SFA is very clear that this is not a marketing campaign on the cheap. According to chief executive Kim Thorneywork, it is the "beginning of a new way of working together". Indeed the SFA has hired the Kindred PR agency to promote the successes of the sector. Although, so far it only seems to be being used by the SFA and a handful of organisations and individuals working in the sector.

Of course, there's already one FE hashtag that's doing the rounds: #ukFEchat. This one evolved more organically, thanks to a small band of FE professionals - including our columnist Sarah Simons - who now "meet" at 9pm every Thursday, using their laptops, phones and iPads to discuss the hot topics of the week. If you're looking for a break from the Christmas preparations tomorrow evening, do drop by.

FE staff will be worst hit by shortened redundancy consultation, claims union - December 18 2012

Mass redundancies are never much fun, as many FE lecturers have found out in the last couple of years. But, from next April, the process for dismissing large numbers of employees will be made significantly quicker.

At present, a statutory 90-day consultation period must elapse before redundancies can be completed - however this is being halved to just 45 days.

Liberal Democrat employment relations minister Jo Swinson said the change will help all parties, by making it quicker for employers to cut their costs and for employees to find a new job. "The process is usually completed well within the existing 90-day minimum period, which can cause unnecessary delays for restructuring, and make it difficult for those affected to get new jobs quickly," she said.

Not surprisingly, the University and College Union is less than impressed. It has called on employers to maintain collective consultations, whether or not they remain a legal requirement, as it believes they bring benefits for both staff and institutions.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt described the move as "an attack on workers' rights", adding: "Jobs for early careers staff in further and higher education are already notoriously insecure; making the situation even worse could result in many considering different career paths."

If cost-cutting moves across the sector in recent months are anything to go by, we won't have to wait long to see whether Ms Hunt's prophecy comes to pass.

Students call for independent watchdog to police their complaints - December 17 2012

As part of the new rules over the potentially radical changes that will allow the direct recruitment of 14- to 16-year-olds, colleges will have to establish an independent admissions appeals body, in the style of the schools sector. But a report by the National Union of Students is calling for FE to do more and establish an independent adjudicator for all student complaints.

The NUS said it is "consistently" presented with evidence from members that complaints processes need to be better publicised, easier to access, quicker to resolve and more consistent between institutions.

The introduction of loans for over-24s studying level 3 courses will add impetus to their call: a pound;4,000 bill for a course is likely to raise student expectations as to what bang they are exactly getting for their buck.

The union's report, Unresolved: the state of student complaints in further education, found that only 4 per cent of colleges believe students are fully aware of their complaints procedures, although all said students were at least "slightly aware" of them.

More than a quarter didn't record the number of complaints, or didn't know if they did. And only 28 per cent publicise the fact that students can appeal to an external body, either the Education Funding Agency or the Skills Funding Agency.

Some 71 per cent believed there should be an independent appeals body, although only 14 per cent thought that this would be used often.

It is on the basis of this evidence that the NUS is calling for an independent complaints adjudicator, backed by a board of experts, and designed to filter out frivolous or vexatious complaints. They suggest providers would opt-in to the system, so the adjudicator had the support of the sector.

The plan has hit one snag, though: the NUS suggested the adjudicator should be housed within the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, which will cease to be funded next August. Another job for the FE Guild and chartered college status?

Keeping the content under wraps draws in the punters - December 14 2012

Everyone agrees that information, advice and guidance are vital to choosing a course. Everyone, that is, except City Lit, which has just started trying to win over new learners by offering adults `curious courses' - mystery evening classes. A dozen people attended the first session this week, told only to bring clothes they didn't mind getting dirty and a picture of someone they loved or admired. (Sounds sinister, but it was only sculpture.) More mystery classes are planned for February. But is the real secret to getting adults through the door the inclusion of a glass of wine?

Read our FE blog postings from November 29 - December 13

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