The need to ensure that the UK has a highly skilled workforce is vital. The UK economy faces considerable challenges, from low productivity to the uncertainty posed by Brexit. The government recognises the pivotal role that reforms to technical and professional education will play in creating a dynamic, modern, 21st-century workforce.
Alongside changes to apprenticeship funding, the Sainsbury reforms present the most significant opportunity to completely reprofile technical and professional education (TPE). The Sainsbury reforms could deliver a step change in productivity as part of a renewed focus on industrial strategy. It can ensure that industry and business leadership becomes a reality, with a curriculum specifically designed to meet employer needs.
The need to deliver a robust and credible TPE system is now more important than ever.
Much has already been discussed about Sainsbury: the 15 routes; the introduction of T levels; the aspiration to provide high-quality TPE pathways on par with academic-based routes. But an equally crucial aspect is to understand which kinds of institutions are best placed to deliver this change.
It is undoubtedly true that FE has an indispensable role to play, but in order to fulfil the potential of these reforms, a change in mindset is needed. This requires a recognition that the sector has changed in the past five years, and to thrive in the post-Sainsbury world, colleges will need to rationalise their offer to focus on specialisms. To do this, new organisational structures may be required, as colleges realign themselves as centres of expertise.
What’s needed are locally embedded institutions that offer specialist provision tailored to give both learners and industry the skills to drive growth and productivity. This will require institutions with strong links to industry and an ability to respond to local and regional labour market demand. It leads to an inevitable question: is the general further education (GFE) college best placed to realise the potential of these important reforms?
Sainsbury provides a framework for institutions to plan collectively how they best use their resources to accommodate local labour market need. In this way, it has the potential to deliver what the area-based review programme has not delivered by driving colleges to review their own business models and structures to create efficiencies and deliver better outcomes.
Picking the right routes
In most cases it would not be realistic for colleges to deliver all 15 routes. Instead, colleges will need to offer routes that best reflect the needs of the local economy. Some colleges have concerns about securing high-quality work placements across the new T-level courses. But accessing high-quality work placements will only be possible with a range of well-developed employer relationships. Can standalone colleges really deliver high-quality T levels across 15 diverse economic sectors, while creating and developing meaningful employer partnerships across all routes?
What we need are new operational structures that can best facilitate a locally designed and delivered curriculum that leverages a broad spectrum of meaningful employer relationships. Is it now time to look at group models as the best means to provide individual services that support the local economy and the local community? College group structures, would provide an innovative way to leverage the community and social ties of individual institutions, within a wider network of colleges. At the same time, it would allow individual colleges within the group to focus on specialisms, and for other colleges to focus on providing different levels of provision.
Institutes of technology would then have a natural home in the FE sector within a college group delivering level 4 and 5 science, technology, engineering and maths provision. A “hub and spoke” model could be applied, where “spoke” colleges train new recruits at level 1 and 2, perhaps as part of the transition year, and the “hub” institution could then provide progression onto T-level courses at level 3, leading on to an apprenticeship, university or even degree apprenticeships.
It is these kinds of institutions that are most relevant to the rapidly evolving context. Curriculum planners no longer need to focus just on providing the skills in today job market, but increasingly they also need to anticipate the skills needed 5, 10 or 20 years down the line.
The reforms to TPE potentially represent the most profound changes to technical education in a generation. There is a widespread commitment, both inside and outside the sector, to see a new and improved system developed to deliver maximum benefit for learners, industry and the economy. But beyond the reforms themselves, Sainsbury provides an important opportunity for institutions to come together to plan strategically how they offer training, to boost the competitiveness of the UK economy and improve the life chances of learners across the UK.
To deliver on this promise, a change in mindset is needed. The move will be away from the traditional GFE and towards new types of organisational and legal structures that will be best able to capitalise on the huge changes brought about by Sainsbury.
Perhaps we should no longer talk about the GFE of 1992. Instead, now is the time to talk about the college group of 2022.
Ian Pretty is chief executive of the Collab Group. He tweets at @ianpretty1