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Opinion: The good work of colleges must not be undone by 'flawed' area reviews

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Like any profession that is vocational, we like to think our desire to teach and inspire takes precedence over the demands of profit.

But that is not the world we live in, and the reality is that colleges must be run as businesses and going concerns if they are to survive and thrive.

Our latest challenge is the government’s area reviews, a national programme at whose heart lies a fear that England risks getting left behind economically on the international stage unless post-16 education is overhauled to meet the need for better skills.

For Nick Boles MP, the skills minister tasked with reform, the development of a professional and technical education system through strong institutions with high status and expertise is pivotal to the project.

In his own words, his aim is to provide all young people with a "high quality route to employment" and ensure that "professional and technical education is a legitimate and equal alternative to the traditional academic route".

Mr Boles' words follow the government’s stated aim, announced in the summer, of creating an additional 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 – and he has added two further planks of reform. They comprise the creation of high quality professional and technical routes into employment, alongside robust academic routes. These must allow individuals to progress to the high-level skills valued by employers, at the same time as responding to local employer needs and economic priorities to meet changing skills requirements.

The questions being asked in the initial area reviews highlight the future direction Mr Boles envisages – and finances play a key part. How colleges collaborate with other education bodies, the possibilities for rationalisation of curricula to reduce costs and a reduction of estates are among the topics raised.

Diversification is not an issue for those who have already modernised their curricula to give instruction in professions where jobs exist and where employers crave a highly skilled and work-ready workforce. Our new 14-19 Career College for advanced manufacturing, engineering and computer science, supported by many local employers, is a perfect example of this. 

I do not shy away from Mr Boles’ reviews, for South Tyneside College has diversity and financial strength – we are rated financially outstanding by the Skills Funding Agency. We are employer-friendly, too, having in place dedicated staffing experts who engage with businesses to understand their needs.

However, balance of investigation is required.

He wants strong institutions with the status to deliver pathways to employment, and he wants fiscal discipline to meet what he says are significant financial pressures. The upshot is that colleges will change, with the likelihood they will be fewer and larger, with greater specialisation.

But while we must give people the skills to boost their opportunities and our nation’s international standing, many enlightened colleges have already brought Mr Boles’ future plans into action. For example, South Tyneside College has reshaped its curriculum to directly to meet the needs of North East business, investing millions in advanced facilities and working closely with employers.

While accepting the inevitability of change, I am apprehensive as to the review’s exact remit and sense a failed opportunity to fully investigate what needs to be done.

Mr Boles has made it clear that all colleges are likely to be affected, from curriculum rationalisation to major restructuring, yet many should be commended for having taken steps to meet student and employer needs. 

And if he is seeking answers, then he must also face questions, for a weakness in his review is his failure to include sixth forms and other education providers in his remit, and his failure to consider a college’s national and international standing. Why is it that an educator like South Tyneside College, with thousands of students from across the globe, will be judged on its financial position, yet a local sixth form with far fewer students but still drawing a budget, will not?

That we will all be touched by this review seems undoubted, but it will be a missed opportunity if he fails to include all post-16 education in his calculations.

Change is coming and we must adapt, but it is essential the good work already done by many colleges is not overlooked or sacrificed to elements of a review which may be flawed.

Dr Lindsey Whiterod OBE is chief executive of South Tyneside College. She tweets at @LindseyWhiterod

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