Sir Richard Branson would make a good further education principal. This is not because of his charm and genius for marketing, but rather his extraordinary ability to oversee vastly different businesses under a single brand and make them successful.
Why would this be useful in FE? Because, in a climate where funding is regularly chipped away, FE colleges can get a competitive edge over rival establishments by providing experiences that replicate or even surpass the real-life vocational environment. A fully functioning public-facing restaurant run by students would not be viable in a small provider. But the vast size of some FE organisations (with up to 50,000 students and 5,000 staff working in one college) can allow such business initiatives to thrive.
Many colleges are already doing this and reaping the benefits. We are seeing a rise in the commercialisation of the FE curriculum: companies are being set up within colleges, as separate businesses with their own commercial managers, in which goods and services are publicly traded. This has the twin benefits of providing an authentic learning experience for students and creating a revenue stream.
The idea is not new. FE colleges have traditionally set up hair salons, restaurants and children's nurseries as student-led companies. But what is new is the scale and breadth, with more recent business developments including design studios, sports assessment centres and computer repair shops.
But principals do need to be wary. For example, some vocational areas lend themselves to this sort of initiative better than others. Common sense suggests that it would be unwise for a level 1 motoring student to fix the brakes of a paying customer's car. Insurance may prove to be a problem, too.
There are potential safeguarding concerns when students and the general public interact. Horror stories such as students discovering pornography on a computer sent for repair, or a client mistaking a college beauty salon for an establishment that offers other, less salubrious services are thankfully rare and are easily dealt with by having a member of staff present at all times.
One big bugbear for those FE organisations that have channelled substantial finances into creating the most genuine of learning experiences is that such companies are not recognised as valid work experience by inspectorate for England Ofsted or the Education Funding Agency. Instead they are categorised as simulated working environments that count only as progression towards external placements.
This is especially frustrating because of the variation in the quality of work experience offered by external placements. From the employer's point of view, why would they let loose a stream of 17-year-olds that they don't know on a customer base they may have spent years developing? Although there are many excellent opportunities for students to connect with industry and increase their employability skills through work experience, there are also many students who don't get past brushing the floors or washing the pots.
Despite Ofsted and the EFA's stance, however, commercial opportunities should still be embraced by principals. These dynamic opportunities to enhance readiness for work can be made viable in the following ways.
Replicate standard hours
Ensure that the resources are used to their full advantage. Why spend millions developing a five-star spa that only opens from 9am to 4pm on weekdays and stays closed for three months of the year? The most successful college-based businesses trade during standard industry hours. For hair and beauty treatments that means late nights, weekends and holidays, even during the week between Christmas and New Year. For nurseries, it can mean a 7am start. Not only does this establish the business as equal to external companies, it also allows the students involved to build their stamina prior to making the transition into employment, where longer hours and shorter holidays are the norm.
Use facilities for learner inductions
Inducting students on to their courses using industry-standard facilities and working with a real-life clientele provides an aspirational start. It also demonstrates a clear line of sight to employment. Introducing students to the next level of a course over the summer through public-facing resources consolidates the previous year's curriculum and ensures the skills they have learned are fresh in their minds.
Colleges that create companies can irk local businesses. There may be concerns that FE providers with a broad and influential reach will have an unfair advantage over smaller competitors. Inviting local companies to contribute to the development of college initiatives and involving them in curriculum design can provide a platform to forge links with industry, rather than leaving the college isolated from it. Being sensitive to the locations of similar commercial ventures (if college enterprises are off campus) and setting rates that do not undercut established businesses can allay fears over competition.
Building relationships with employers by inviting them to networking events and introducing them to the college companies can provide opportunities for them to scout for potential talent. Presenting the business as a channel for recruitment also creates a mechanism to secure future work experience placements. These employer relationships can be advanced by developing student mentorship schemes, or even suggesting industry sponsorship of college business.
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. Find her on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons