The jewel in the crown is job-ready workers

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
I've invented a new group, the WEET group: wanting employment, education and training.

A typical WEET is a female, of an age that significantly reduces car insurance premiums (which used to be 25 to 45) who wants to progress or resume her career and can't get a place at college because the college can't meet the demand. She knows there are plenty of jobs, but she needs to update her skills and get National Certificate or Higher National Certificate qualifications to progress or re-enter work at a level that maximises the benefit from Working Family Tax Credits.

This year, Jewel and Esk Valley College created more than 3,000 WEETs, and my estimate is that, across the Edinburgh and Lothians colleges, we create about 10,000 a year - a far larger number than the area NEET (not in education, employment or training) group.

The only way colleges can respond to initiatives is by moving around existing resources, which means creating more WEET to deal with the NEET, or vice versa. This crazy tug-of-war is exacerbated by the implosion of funding for adult training at Scottish Enterprise.

My first teaching "episode" (called lessons in those days) was with a City and Guilds stage 1 animal husbandry day release group, all male and straight off the farm. This was a three-hour entanglement with students from Warwickshire's best and biggest farms, and the topic was anaesthetics and calf dehorning - a 40-minute lecture of "underpinning knowledge"

(called in those days, the boring bit) and two hours of practical.

Everyone in the group knew more about the practical aspects of the subject than I did and had far more experience than I did, but had no concept of the anatomy, veterinary science or animal welfare issues needed to obtain a pass grade. I, therefore, had to adjust my coping strategy (now called learning and teaching style) to bring together and pool all that expertise to enable the group (including me) to learn from the shared skills and knowledge.

Twenty years later, it has proved to be an excellent grounding for being the project sponsor of a pound;50 million new build. I sit at design team meetings and everyone in the room, from architect to transport consultants, knows more than me. I have had to adjust my management style to enable debate, summarise positions, challenge issues and steer the development of concepts, designs and actions.

Virtually every secondary school we deal with has been rebuilt in the last few years. Our college has extensive schoolcollege partnerships involving 27 schools, and we now have 462 pupils attending the college - the equivalent of half a secondary school. We have had a complaint from a mother to say that her daughter has been at the college for three weeks and there has been no assembly, she has not met the headteacher and there is no date for the parents' consultation evening.

Colleges, like schools, are subject to a phalanx of initiatives. These initiatives are uncosted, unfunded and, in most cases, create a new priority (these days called a workstream) for college activity to meet needs such as literacy, NEET, disadvantage, social exclusion, EU migrants, rehabilitation of offenders, progression to higher education, and so on and so on.

These initiatives are dreamt up by some administrator in offices miles from a school or a college. I have found that, from my first teaching episode to the present day, the way to get real innovation is to trust the professionalism, expertise and diligence of those closest to the issues to drive innovation, improvement and change from the bottom, not the top.

Scotland's Colleges have taken the self-evaluation and continuous improvement ethos to heart, but there is nearly total agreement that the volume of the sector has to be expanded and that this will require additional resources.

It may be time to have the debate about not only the differential between college and university funding (universities get about twice the funding for the same level of work), but also whether we need all these graduates.

Would it be better to expand Higher National provision and trades training to create larger numbers of job-ready workers, thus supporting the growth of the economy rather than creating boffins in an office miles away dreaming up initiatives?

Howard McKenzie is principal of Jewel and Esk Valley College

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