The FE news blog

15th February 2013 at 12:40
The FE Focus news blog, updating you on all the news and analysis from the world of colleges

Walsall College gains top rating under Ofsted's new regime

Is there something in the Black Country water? Just a couple of months after Walsall Adult and Community College, a local authority provider, became the first FE institution to gain an "outstanding" grade in the new Ofsted inspection framework, neighbouring Walsall College has become the first general FE college to gain that honour.

Inspectors praised the high standards and expectations of teachers, which resulted in work from students that was "well above the standard expected for the course". Average success rates for all age groups on all courses rose by more than 10 percentage points in the two years up to 2010-11, from 77 per cent to 87.5 per cent.

"Teachers set very high standards, have very high expectations and use their vocational skills and expertise to make lessons motivating, interesting and memorable," inspectors said. "Lessons are well planned, engaging and enable students to make rapid progress and achieve well."

They also praised the assessment processes and a "relentless" focus on quality assurance. Managers closely analyse levels of achievement to identify any disparities across different groups by gender, ethnicity, age or disability and take action if any are uncovered, inspectors said.

"We are incredibly proud of this achievement and delighted that Ofsted has recognised the college as one of the best in the country for outstanding teaching and learning, and the impact this has on producing high levels of success," said principal Jatinder Sharma. "Over the past few years we have also worked hard to develop strategies to create an inclusive environment that promotes equality and diversity, making it easier for all students to access learning and this was again highly praised by the inspectors."

But even under Sir Michael Wilshaw's Ofsted regime, there is some room for variable standards: inspectors said a small number of courses below level 2 had success rates that were below the national average and called on Walsall College to address these.

The inspection also showed that Ofsted is taking a close interest in subcontracting, noting that the provision was not of the same high quality as the college's own teaching, and saying that staff should continue to closely monitor subcontractors to bring them up to standard.

Joseph Lee

Could FE be facing a pound;400m haircut? - 21 March 2012

Just before yesterday's Budget, Michael Gove was more or less frank about what to expect for his Department. "Those areas around which we have a ring fence, the NHS and schools - not the whole education budget, sadly - but schools and overseas aid would be protected," the education secretary said.

What he was glossing over was the fact that an important part of the schools budget, shared with colleges, was not protected at all, as the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) pointed out yesterday.

"Options for 16- to 19-year-olds are being seriously squeezed by funding cuts and we have already warned that many school sixth forms and colleges will be forced to cut the number of courses on offer," said deputy general secretary Malcolm Trobe.

Now, having combed through the Budget documents, we have a sense of what "not the whole education budget, sadly" means. The Department for Education budget for 2014-15 will be pound;400 million less than had been planned in the Budget last year, at pound;53.8 billion instead of pound;54.2 billion.

Given that the Budget for under-16s in schools will be protected, that's likely to mean more bad news for 16-19 education. According to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies two years ago, sixth forms and colleges were already facing a 20 per cent real-terms cut from 2011 to 2015, which the institute described as a "historically large fall".

Much of that has not been felt yet, as various transitional protections are still in place. But from 2014-15, these will start to fall away, prompting fears that many school sixth forms will become unviable.

Some of the money may come from the extensive cuts within the Department itself - it is losing 1,000 members of staff - but the majority of those savings have already been banked. Early years education is also facing cuts, and the Department may reduce spending on children's social services.

But the continuing squeeze on funds is leaving sixth-form colleges, which rely almost entirely on the 16-19 budget, feeling very nervous. "Fees for sixth form in private school are 10 per cent higher than they are for pre-16," said James Kerwin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association. "In the independent school model that Michael Gove is so fond of, that's the market speaking: it costs 10 per cent more. So why do we spend less on the final stages of education?"

It is a theme that the ASCL picked up on too: with the raising of the participation age in September, it looks increasingly odd to cut funding for education in the years when more and more students are taking their crucial final exams.

Joseph Lee

Why the number of hair stylists needs a trim - but it's not FE's fault - 19 March 2013

FE providers often come under fire for flooding the job market with "armies" of prospective hair stylists, beauticians and personal trainers, while failing to produce the next generation of teaching assistants, electricians and engineers. But a new report out today suggests that maybe it isn't the sector's fault after all.

According to research published by the charity Education and Employers Taskforce, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and careers website B-Live, more than a third of the teenagers surveyed were interested in just 10 types of jobs. Not surprisingly, these included actor, sportsman and firefighter.

While the culture, media and sport sector is expected to account for just 2.4 per cent of the jobs created in the period 2010-2020, one in five teenagers felt this was the sector for them.

The survey of more than 11,000 young people also found - equally predictably - that the least popular jobs included factory worker, call centre employee and glazier. But unfortunately for the youngsters involved, many of them are likely to have to shelve their lofty ambitions in order to take up less glamorous roles such as these.

Nick Chambers, director of the Education and Employers Taskforce, said: "As a country we are doing our young people a huge disservice if we don't give them enough information to allow then to make proper informed decisions about their futures." He called for better careers advice to be made available in schools.

The survey follows a report by the Local Government Association, published last June, which blamed the FE sector for failing to put learners on courses that could lead to relevant local job opportunities. In Basildon, Essex, for example, it found that 530 people took hair and beauty courses in 2010-11 even though just 28 suitable jobs were available.

However, the latest research shows that it is arguably the young people themselves who fail to take account of labour market conditions when choosing their preferred career paths. Hardly surprising - and, under the current funding system, FE colleges can hardly be blamed for laying on courses that young people want to take.

But there is some good news: the most sought-after profession in the latest survey was that of teacherlecturer, chosen by 4.4 per cent of 15- and 16-year-olds. Who wants to be a film star anyway?

Stephen Exley

At long last. Richard Review of apprenticeships gets government response - 14 March 2013

The government has finally published its long-awaited response to entrepreneur Doug Richard's review of apprenticeships.

Apprenticeship reform will, the government says, empower employers to "design and develop their own apprenticeship standards and qualifications, so they can address skills shortages that are threatening growth".

The response-cum-consultation document announces that many of the Richard Review's recommendations will be adopted, including:

- employers should put recognised and meaningful industry standards at the heart of every apprenticeship;

- every apprenticeship should be targeted at a skilled job, involving substantial new learning that will provide the foundations for a career and a springboard for progression;

- training and accreditation of existing workers who are already fully competent in their jobs should be delivered separately;

- apprenticeships should be focused on the outcome, clearly setting out what apprentices should know and be able to do at the end of their apprenticeship;

- apprenticeships should culminate in a final holistic test that has the full confidence of employers.

However, the document poses almost as many questions as answers. There are few details on how employers will be prevented from labelling training for "fully competent" staff as apprenticeships, which has been a criticism frequently directed at the apprenticeship programme.

There is also barely a mention of Mr Richard's proposal to fund apprenticeships through a National Insurance or tax credit system, which was strongly opposed by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, which describes it as an idea "fraught with danger".

However, it has been rumoured that more details on this plan could well emerge next week in Chancellor George Osborne's Budget, so watch this space.

Stephen Exley

Kent's biggest college could become the country's first to be taken over by private provider - 13 March 2013

A rescue plan approved by ministers for K College could mean it becomes the first in the country to be taken over by a private provider.

The college ran up debts of more than pound;11.7 million when it was formed from the merger of West Kent College and South Kent College nearly three years ago. It is still receiving additional financial support from the Skills Funding Agency, although it expects to break even next year.

Under the rescue plan, the college's five campuses will once again be divided into two colleges and two competitive bidding processes, open to both colleges and private providers, will be held to see who operates them from September 2014.

Principal Phil Frier was called out of retirement to troubleshoot the college, receiving a text message offering him the job while he was at base camp on a Mount Everest mountaineering expedition. He said: "It's an open, transparent competition between other colleges and private providers. The timescale should mean that students will not be affected."

One obstacle to attracting bids to run either of the colleges could be K College's debt, which may mean taxpayers footing the bill.

But Mr Frier said that students had not paid the price of the college's financial troubles: the range of courses was the same as before the merger and success rates had risen by 7 per cent in the past two years. The 180 staff redundancies made to stabilise the finances had resulted mostly in larger classes rather than fewer courses, he said.

K College's failure has prompted renewed concerns about the effect of college mergers, with skills minister Matthew Hancock ordering a review of merger plans by Birmingham Metropolitan College and Stourbridge College, and writing to governors across the country to warn them of the need for transparency and consultation.

But if colleges are reaching the limit of what mergers can achieve in reducing costs, it is hard to see how they will absorb the impact of further cuts. Alternatives such as shared services or new structures such as mutualisation have yet to prove effective.

Joseph Lee

PM becomes latest political big hitter to throw weight behind apprenticeships - 11 March 2013

Labour, as many of the party's MPs have been quick to point out on Twitter, founded National Apprenticeship Week back in 2008 to encourage more young people to become apprentices. The government may have changed but political enthusiasm for the project is stronger than ever.

While skills minister Matthew Hancock and his predecessor John Hayes have long lauded apprenticeships for bringing benefits to both employers and employees, today Prime Minister David Cameron added his voice to the debate.

This morning, he met young apprentices at a training academy in Buckinghamshire, and spelled out his vision for apprenticeships. He wants them to be "at the heart of our mission to rebuild the economy" and for it to be just as much "the norm" for young people to become apprentices as it is for them to go on to university.

This will, he said, give young people "the chance to learn a trade, to build their careers and create a truly world-class, high-skilled workforce that can compete and thrive in the fierce global race we are in".

An apprenticeship "is increasingly seen as a first-choice career move", Mr Cameron argued.

"But," he added, "we need to challenge ourselves to go even further - that is why I want it to be the new norm for young people to either go to university or into an apprenticeship. We need to look at how we can expand apprenticeship opportunities so that they are available to all young people who are ready and eager to take them up, and aspire to get ahead in life."

Stephen Exley

Research challenges whether apprenticeships will ever really be a route into HE - 07 March 2013

New research by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has examined several cohorts of apprentices over three years to see which of them progressed to higher education. The answers pose some serious challenges to the Government's ambition for apprenticeships to be a route to the top of a student's chosen industry.

Firstly, apprentices are more likely to progress if they're in the public sector (20 per cent) or FE colleges (18 per cent). Employers receiving direct funding for their programmes only see 14.6 per cent progress. So the trend towards putting employers in control of apprenticeship funding could mean less emphasis on getting trainees to degree level.

Secondly, they study part-time. In the 2004-5 cohort, 78 per cent of those who took a degree course were part-timers. But with the rise of fees to pound;6,750 for part-time study, and with only 30 per cent of students expected to benefit from loan support, the numbers of part-time students fell by eight per cent this year. Fees and loans are also being introduced for over-24 advanced apprentices, creating additional barriers.

Niace has warned that decades of progress were being eroded. "The outdated notion of universities as finishing schools for 18 and 19 year olds treading the well-worn path from school to full-time residential study needs to change," said Paul Stanistreet, Niace's head of higher education policy, at the launch of a publication examining the crisis last month.

"We think it matters that mature and part-time student numbers are in decline and that the higher education system is becoming a less age-diverse and less adult-friendly place. Failure to reverse this decline will mean the further disintegration of a framework that took many decades to build up - and which will take many more to rebuild from scratch."

There's more: older apprentices are also less likely to progress. Just 3.7 per cent of over-25s moved onto degrees, compared to 12.4 of 17- to 19-year-olds. Perhaps for this reason, the overall apprenticeship progression rate fell by more than two percentage points between 2004 and 2008. And the trend of ageing apprentices continues.

The large numbers of level two apprentices also present a problem. They only have about a 5050 chance of progressing to a level three apprenticeship, and after that only 8 per cent progress to a degree. That means over 150,000 people a year now who do not progress beyond a GCSE-equivalent level.

Ministers will want to keep a close eye on these issues, becausethe research also shows apprenticeships are becoming more middle class. While the numbers from deprived areas increased by 57 per cent, those from privileged areas with high levels of HE participation rose by 65 per cent. Those students and their parents will expect the promises of progression to be fulfilled. And that could benefit all apprentices.

Joseph Lee

The mere possibility of apprenticeships at Facebook and Google is good news for the sector - 5 March 2013

Tech City, the East London hub of technology and new media businesses radiating out from "Silicon Roundabout" at Old Street, is either the most exciting development in the UK economy or the most overhyped, depending on who you listen to.

Prime ministerial adviser Rohan Silva is firmly in the former camp, describing it as "the fastest growing technology cluster in Europe" at a launch last week for the Tech City Apprenticeship programme, run by Hackney Community College and its subsidiary, View Training.

The new programme is not without its own hype: according to the publicity, there is the possibility that young people may be able to work with Google or Facebook, which would certainly boost the status of the apprentices as a whole.

Google's presence in Tech City, however, is limited to providing support for other people's new businesses with an initiative called Google Campus. Future apprentices would be taken on here rather than working in the company's web search or mobile operating system divisions or on its new high-tech glasses project. And although the college insists that both Google and Facebook are "committed" to the apprenticeship programme, neither firm has revealed its plans to hire any just yet.

The companies that have done so embody some of the complaints about Tech City - for example, that it's more about design and media than technology. One of these "early adopters" is the digital design agency Poke, which works for brands ranging from Diesel to Jamie Oliver.

But in the world of apprenticeships, getting such employers on board is no bad thing. Apprenticeships in creative industries are relatively new, and if Hackney Community College can recruit the 500 young people it is aiming for, it would represent significant progress.

The college is also working with employers to develop advanced apprenticeships that will deliver on the technology promise, offering a level 4 qualification in programming from the autumn, along with an advanced apprenticeship in digital design.

Whether Tech City can pose a serious challenge to Silicon Valley is doubtful - if the UK has a real technology power base, it's probably in Cambridge. But there are companies making real profits in design and technology in East London, and it has to be a good thing that they are taking an interest in developing the next generation.

Joseph Lee

Will FE ever get the funding for its own MOOC? - 27 February 2013

Yesterday, the first meeting of the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group took place, chaired by skills minister Matthew Hancock, the proud owner of an A level in computing and increasingly an outspoken advocate for the power of technology.

The group is addressing an impression that the FE sector is lagging behind in learning technology. It's not entirely clear that is fair: technology has crept into many parts of FE in a fairly quiet, unheralded way, such as using video evidence in apprenticeship portfolios.

But the great hype of the moment is the emergence in higher education of the massive open online course (MOOC), a sort of 21st-century Open University where people can participate remotely in university courses, often for free.

Mr Hancock is a fan but FE has no equivalent yet. Should it? Strangely enough, some of the reasons to be sceptical about MOOCs' takeover of HE suggest that it might play an important role in adult education in FE.

So far, students have been using MOOCs not as a supplement or alternative to a full HE course, but for "personal interest" learning. Tufts University's survey of OpenCourseWare in 2011 found that this was by far the largest group of learners. There was little interest in accreditation, however.

What people want to use MOOCs for, then, is "informal learning" of a kind that was drastically reduced in the latter half of the last Labour government.

Ministers at the time hoped to create a self-organised "learning revolution", with community groups springing up to replace college provision in the model of the University of the Third Age. It didn't quite happen, but perhaps widespread, high-quality online learning materials could help informal learning to bounce back.

As ever, one obstacle is likely to be cash. It's hardly likely that FE colleges, already under great financial pressure, will be able to create MOOCs on their own. But part of the appeal for politicians is undoubtedly the promise of more learning for less money. Will they be prepared to provide start-up capital to make it happen?

Joseph Lee

Michael Wilshaw leaves audience shocked by praising FE - 25 Fabruary 2013

Staff at Hull College would have been forgiven if they had interrupted the visit of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector last week with the words: "Who are you, and what have you done with Sir Michael Wilshaw?"

It is not just that the sight of Sir Michael being effusive in his praise of an FE college is unusual, but that his remarks to the Hull Daily Mail up-ended his habitual complaints about the sector and presented the college as a model for the whole education system.

"It is an outstanding college," Sir Michael said. "It certainly was when we last inspected it and I can see the reason why. Aspirations are high, expectations are high and students are achieving very, very well. Hull is doing well in terms of its post-16 college provision. What needs to happen now is that excellence needs to transfer down to schools. We want to see more schools in Hull doing as well as this college is doing."

Well, that was refreshing. And there were more revelations in a further quote: "It is my third visit to a college and it was a heart-warming experience."

Colleges will certainly note the extent of Sir Michael's experience with FE. Perhaps they will also note the evidence of an organ previously thought to belong to the realms of myth: the chief inspector's heart.

Joseph Lee

Could blurring custodial with educational policy be a smokescreen? - 21 February 2013

The Green Paper Transforming Youth Custody, published last week, is a mixture of sensible, admirable aims and slightly eyebrow-raising methods.

It's easy to imagine that it was written in two parts: first, an analysis of the problems of youth custody written by the Ministry of Justice's officials, and then a trip round tothe Department for Education to ask about hot new ideas inschools, without expending too much thought on whether they are relevant to children in prison.

How else to explain the fact that the MoJ is intending to model its new "secure colleges" on academies and free schools? A policy whose entire point is choice and diversity is to be applied to young prisoners, who by definition do not get to pick where they spend their time.

Despite the invocation of "borstals" in some of the media coverage, the sensible part of the proposal is that it aims to shift the balance from detention to education. But is it possible to increase education while still cutting costs?

Perhaps. Justice secretary Chris Grayling said that it costs pound;100,000 a year on average to house and educate a young offender in one of the three types of home available. The cheapest, itturns outfrom the Green Paper,are young offenders' institutions,costingonly pound;65,000 a year for each young person.It is worth observingthata lot of extra education could be bought with, say, pound;10,000.

The question is whether themost expensive institutions can become less so: it costs, for example, pound;212,000 a year on average to house a young offender in a local authority secure children's home. They provide 30 hours of education, double that of young offenders' institutions, but that is unlikely to account for the expense: it's more likely to be a result of their younger and more vulnerable offenders.

As a means of lowering expenses, the paper puts a huge amount of faith in following the "freedoms and flexibilities" given to education providers and introducing an element of payment by results, as with the Work Programme. But the first of these has done little to reduce costs and the second has hardly impressed with its quality: last year, official figures showed that the Work Programme was worse than doing nothing.

As the Green Paper acknowledges, reoffending isn't necessarily driven by poor provision inside what the MoJ calls the secure estate: often it's because the transition out of an institution and into mainstream education is badly handled. Teenagers unable to find housing or a place in education and training often end up repeating their mistakes.

Young offenders' institutions are already working to improve this. So it's not clear why it's necessary to "attract a diverse range of providers into the market, drawing in both education expertise and security experience", especially when education provision, the supposed focus of change, is already openly tendered. Or is it simply that the government wants to privatise young offenders' security?

Joseph Lee

The glamorous end of apprenticeships gets its moment in the spotlight - 19 February 2013

Just in case the Londoners among you were wondering why there have been more more supermodels, fashion designers and downright bizarre clothing knocking around during the last couple of days than you might be used to, it could well have something to do with London Fashion Week.

Now the good people of FE are certainly not averse to piggybacking on high profile events to try and garner a few more column inches. So fair play to Creative Skillset, the sector skills council for the creative industries, for using the event to launch a new higher level apprenticeship in fashion and textiles.

"With signs of a renaissance in UK clothing and textile manufacture, it is essential employers can attract and train highly skilled workers if they are to seize new market opportunities," Annie Warburton, head of partnerships at Creative Skillset, said.

"{We are} proud to have developed pioneering apprenticeships in fashion and textiles, and to work with leading businesses and trainers to equip the new generation of talent with skills for creative and commercial success."

Could FE be any more fashionable?

Stephen Exley

More transparency over merger plans please, demands minister - 15 February 2013

With college budgets already pared to the bone and more cuts likely to be on the way, the last couple of years have seen a number of colleges opt for mergers and federations to reduce their costs through economies of scale.

But FE minister Matthew Hancock has issued a call for more "transparency and openness" around the process. Most significantly, he has called for more consultation to take place when a merger is being considered, and insisted that any plans for a merger or significant structural change should be "through open and competitive processes", rather than simply being agreed by neighbouring institutions behind closed doors.

The starting point for any change, he writes in a letter seen by TES and sent to chairs of college corporations this week, "should be an assessment of need and how different delivery models might fulfil it".

The minister also tells colleges they must "consult widely and transparently on your proposals, taking explicit account of the views of the communities you serve and of other interested parties including the LEP, local authority and the funding agencies". Consultation, Mr Hancock adds, should take place at an "early stage" in the process in addition to statutory consultations required before a college corporation can be dissolved.

"Finally," he adds, "any actions you take to secure new partners or change your delivery model should be through open and competitive processes which will allow the best possible solution to be identified to meet local needs. In these cases, transparency and openness on the options that have been considered, and a clear rationale for the final proposal, are both critical and need to be in place before the final, formal consultation."

It remains to be seen whether cash-strapped institutions will be too pleased at effectively being forced to reveal their intentions before they have formal plans on the table. Interestingly, the letter also suggests they would be obliged to offer the opportunity to other FE organisations to come on board, rather than merely announcing their preferred partner.

Potentially, this could be good news for colleges in a healthy financial position looking to expand their empire in other parts of the country. It's safe to say that institutions keen to become the next NCG or The Manchester College will be keeping their ear to the ground.

Stephen Exley

Read previous stories from the FE news blog


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today