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Real learning and growth comes from problem-based approaches to education

The magic happens when a student can test their skills in real-life environments, writes West Suffolk College principal Nikos Savvas

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The magic happens when a student can test their skills in real-life environments, writes West Suffolk College principal Nikos Savvas

As a principal of a further education college and as a father, I constantly worry about my kids. All of them. The ones I try to educate as a locum parentis, entrusted to me by their families, and the ones at home, whom I have entrusted to their teachers.

I worry about what is going to happen to them when they leave the nest. Are they going to be ready? How do I ensure they are ready? Will they get a job with prospects? Will they be fulfilled and happy?

In today’s changing world, a core truth is that, through businesses and education working in partnership, we can produce substantial and rich benefits for everybody involved and ensure growth for the future.

Through this partnership, young people gain awareness and experience of the workplace and what is expected from them to succeed. Businesses, via colleges, get to shape the next generation of employees to ensure a flow of "work-ready" young people in industry to address their needs for specific skills, both now and in the future.

Partnerships vital

Research has shown a real skills gap in future provision, so partnerships are vital as they create opportunities for learning in real-work environments using the latest equipment and technology, helping to drive innovation and change. It enhances and re-shapes what already exists and creates a skills system that will meet future economic needs, raise individual achievement and the aspirations of local people.

The further education sector is already adroit at collaborating with industry. This year has seen our students work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Albert Roux, Bryan Ferry and Lee Stafford. This type of experience is replicated time and time again across the sector, across the country.

The live partnerships we have with some of the biggest names in industry, including BT, EDF, British Sugar and Norse, is further testimony to this. But we recognise that education needs to be more flexible in the way it works with business. If we really want partnerships to thrive we need to think about what commerce needs, otherwise we risk turning businesses off.

True partnership means understanding the needs and the demands of all within the relationship, including the students. Education needs to recognise that we are not ‘doing the businesses a favour’ by asking them to invest their time in young people, it is for the benefit of all.


In addition, we need to embrace our responsibility in preparing young people not only academically and vocationally, but also behaviorally. As we all know, "succeeding at work" is more than just aptitude, it’s as much about what you know as who you know. For us, there is an equally important third prong and that is knowing how to ‘behave’ in a workplace and in society.

We call this character and it is part of our "Three Pillars" approach (credentials, connections and characters); a curriculum-embedded programme to develop the right character strengths to enable a student to achieve. The character strengths, developed in consultation with businesses, are confidence, curiosity, optimism, ambition, ownership, resilience, respect and self-control, all attributes employers said they want to see in young people when they turn up for work. Young people as a minimum, need to turn up, ask questions, be enthusiastic and not lose their temper if things go wrong. And this should all be within the first hour.

We have embedded this ideology within our curriculum and our very fabric. As a college, we exist to serve our community and that means ensuring that the young people we teach have all the skills businesses need, academically as well as personally, and the recruitment pipelines we are developing are relevant. We are creating the citizens and the leaders of the future and we need to ensure they are stewards for and contributors to the common good.

As Geoff Tucker, from the Norse Group, comments: “The education and business sectors share many common objectives, both in the high standards of the services they provide and in the development of the country’s future skills pool.” In both arenas, a partnership approach is preferable and far more effective than traditional contractual arrangements.  However, in true partnerships, schools, academies and colleges will also establish relationships with suppliers who, rather than just achieving the best delivery of their own specific services, have a deeper commitment to ensuring the highest standards of education provision."

Geoff says, “Successful businesses are the ones that, through their growth, provide future employment opportunities. Trusted commercial partners are also clearly committed to the development of a pool of future potential employees beyond their own requirements, to the benefit of society as a whole.”

He feels the best industry partners will co-operate closely with their local education and training suppliers in providing work placement and apprenticeship opportunities, mentoring, business-needs presentations and workshops, mentoring, and enabling disadvantaged job-seeker placements.

It is therefore essential that businesses and education providers plan and move forward with a collaborative mindset, and embrace an ethos of partnership. Vocational and academic excellence can be achieved by colleges and schools alone, but real learning and growth comes from problem-based approaches to education.  The magic happens when a student can test their skills in real life environments. This approach enables us to collectively and energetically address the challenges of the 21st century.

The International Festival of Learning, taking place at West Suffolk College today, explores this in its major theme of "future-proofing the workforce", and all that can be achieved for society if the two worlds of education and business work together.

Dr Nikos Savvas is principal of West Suffolk College, co-partner of the International Festival of Learning, and chief executive of Suffolk Academies Trust.  

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