Seize the day in our sector's state of flux

21st January 2011 at 00:00

FE funding is changing. The emphasis has altered to the level that fee collections and efficiency of delivery dominate the "to do" list, and as colleges we must face the future with integrity and purpose. More than ever, we need to run our businesses on a commercial footing while recognising the need to ensure the learner comes first.

So how does a college do this with an entitlement that is now just 30 hours a year? Is the funding decision in total opposition to the philosophy of student support or quality assurance?

Before we bemoan the opposing philosophies, the clear message is this: go back to the drawing board, stop tinkering at the edges and get your curriculum redesigned from scratch. Oh, and by the way, also make sure your business is fit for purpose.

So on to curriculum design: yes, it needs to be cost-effective, but also inspiring. At my college - Weston College in North Somerset - we have devised a range of bite-sized learning packages that capture the interest of the learner while allowing rapid accumulation of qualifications. At all times, we question validity of content and explore how new technologies can have impact. In many cases, the work we have done with industry acts as our guide.

Even with such redesign, there is still the issue of creating a marketable FE curriculum - particularly for adults - but current proposals for loans and so on may just return us to an age where education befits the rich. I sincerely hope not. So much has been achieved in the past 20 years by FE that we as professionals need to preserve the best facets while recognising the need for change. My college is there to meet the needs of the community it serves. In the current agenda, it would be very easy to forget this key fact.

Anyway, let's assume the curriculum experts have done their bit and we have a set of learning packages to deliver the goods. Do we have the staff to deliver this new style of learning delivery? Are the learning resources staff up for it? Are lecturers ready to embrace new "slimmed down" learning programmes? Are learners ready for the change? I believe they are, but to ensure success they need to work with motivated staff who will bring out the very best in them.

Do you know what enthusiastic staff are like - or should be like? If you are unsure, visit an Apple store, as I did before Christmas, and get a taste of the "wow" factor.

Assuming the HR professionals do their bit and your college retains its best staff and ensures common understanding of the goals, the word "learner" will permeate every aspect of your college. Are you there yet? I hope so. Whatever you do, be cautious when dealing with the expert agencies, often drawn from past FE managers who will likely do no more than tell you what you already know.

Feeling contented that you've done all this and more? Don't be complacent - because there is the issue of resources to consider.

Are your buildings up to scratch? Were you caught up in the Learning and Skills Council capital fiasco? Take a look at your physical resources and improve only by calculated risk. Before you take out expensive bank loans, do the maths. As course hours are cut and adults are turned off by prohibitive fees, are you sure expansion is a requirement? Learners can expect good learning resources, but they must receive exceptional teaching and learning. At Weston, we invested many millions of pounds in a third campus devoted to foundation learning and construction skills. Its success will be due to the learner experience - a chance to be wowed by our staff.

The FE world is changing faster than ever and expectations are high. With the changes come phenomenal opportunities as well as threats. Forget the latter and let's get on with the best job in the world.

Dr Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare.

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