Discussion in the press and political circles about the role of further education in helping to improve the skills of the workforce suggests that colleges cannot focus on two things at once - meeting the educational needs of socially excluded groups and catering for employers' needs.
Newham college has had to respond to the needs of a deprived area, a radically restructured local economy, including small and micro businesses, low-skilled workers and sectors undergoing major transformation. At the same time, we have had to address the inflexibility of national qualifications, and employers' need for a "just enough, just in time"
approach to training.
The Employer Training Pilots have been important, enabling small and medium-sized enterprises - rarely heard loudly enough in debates about skills strategies or qualifications reform - to use subsidies to support the release of employees, together with flexible and customised courses using bite-sized and credit-based learning.
Engaging businesses in this way has involved many of the same methods used to reach other communities in Newham and the East End. Ours is a dual approach that derives from our focus on social inclusion through economic regeneration. As a result, we have set new benchmarks for working flexibly with both entrepreneurs and businesses, and disadvantaged communities.
This approach, like the work of many other colleges, should be put at the centre of the new thinking about employer engagement and the mission of FE.
Too much of the current thinking emerges from agencies that are too far from the customer and too influenced by national lobbies, such as the Confederation of British Industry, to know what employers want and what actually works.
Those who work directly with employers know that current training solutions, including the modern apprenticeship and national vocational models, are not always appropriate. This led us to establish the Centre for Innovation and Partnerships to develop new ways of working with more than 1,200 local entrepreneurs and businesses, resulting in new types of flexible learning and responsive business support services.
Of course, much of this approach - and indeed some of the content - was not new to us, as we had already learnt many of the skills through work on a large scale with basic-skills learners and disengaged 14 to 19-year-olds.
Indeed some of this work involved integrating these approaches: for example, the local NHS trust asked us to assist in their development of work-based National Vocational Qualifications, and at the same time address the basic-skills needs of unskilled and low-paid workers.
Similar work supported employees to progress to higher skill levels in the rail industry. We share our focus on inclusion and local regeneration with these employers as they recruit locally, demonstrating why the "college for business" and the open-access local FE college are best integrated.
Underpinning this is our credit framework (the Newham college access diploma), a forerunner of the promising framework for achievement, with more flexible learning opportunities than those available within the NQF.
Our learners build achievement through bite-sized components developed with employers and sector skills councils.
It is odd that some of the most important building blocks of flexibility - "short" courses and "other" national qualifications - are identified as low priorities in the future. We can only hope that the National Employer Training Programme will have learnt the lessons of the pilots and be designed to provide high levels of flexibility.
Government goals put "the employers' needs centre-stage in the design and delivery of training" and "support individuals in gaining the skills and qualifications they seek".
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's own research reveals that more than two-thirds of people say they would be happy to take part in learning and training if they could do it at their own pace without having to commit to a big programme. In other words, increased flexibility will generate increased engagement with employers and people already in, or seeking employment.
The college for business alongside pre-vocational and vocational learning, basic skills, and adult education, may look confused from some policy angles but makes complete sense to customers at a local level. We also need to be pragmatic about economies of scale and the availability of specialist human and physical resources.
National policy should set broad goals but delegate detail as far as possible to the front line. The danger inherent in much of what is happening now is that we have an increasing number of intermediate agencies, and decision-making is moving further away from the customer with every initiative.
Newham college's awards for both employer engagement and working with disadvantaged communities demonstrate that the college for business and the community college share a common agenda and fit well together in the same organisation.
Continuing to deliver and expand these services is the top priority but there are worrying signs ahead: inflexibility appears to be paramount with the emphasis on (mostly inflexible), "long" and NQF qualifications. Let us hope that the National Employer Training Programme is at least designed to afford the flexibility that our customers deserve and need.
Martin Tolhurst is principal of Newham college