Last week, I found myself watching the luge at the Winter Olympics. This was a rather uplifting exercise for me as a German, with my fellow countrymen and women raking in medal after medal. And there is a long history of this – throwing ourselves down a tube of ice in something that looks like a plastic dessert bowl, sometimes in teams of two (yes, I know), is clearly something Germans do well.
This is easily explained – we have luge facilities across the country. I grew up near one, with a ski jump (another German Winter Olympics favourite) half an hour away. The latter was a destination for school trips, with children staring in awe at athletes flying over their heads. These sports are supported in Germany, and are areas of aspiration. But it’s not true of everything: we stick to what we’re good at – no one expects Germany to medal in curling or ice hockey.
Focus on what you do best
I was reminded of this idea of expertise during Martin Doel’s inaugural lecture as FETL professor of leadership in further education and skills at UCL Institute of Education. Ambitiously entitled “Defining Further Education: does it matter?”, it highlighted the lack of a recognised, appropriate definition of FE, and concluded that to be successful, institutions have to identify a core purpose, and build an identity on that.
What is it colleges are actually for? What sets each one apart from other local education institutions, and other FE colleges? Colleges need to answer these questions if they are to drive improvement and find their space in the new, post-area review landscape. What is it they can offer that no one else can?
Arguably, apprenticeship provision for non-levy-paying businesses is one such area, and recently Tes has highlighted a number of other possible specialisms – from higher level provision to adult education. Not every institution can do it all equally well. Maybe it is time institutions chose their disciplines. There are medals to be won for all in FE if they set their sights on the right goals.