Take care of business to be truly outstanding

3rd April 2015 at 01:00
BCC says colleges without links to local firms should not get top grade

Colleges should not be graded outstanding by Ofsted unless they can demonstrate strong links with local businesses, according to the British Chambers of Commerce.

The BCC, which represents thousands of businesses across the country, is ramping up its work with schools and colleges, after a survey revealed that almost nine in 10 businesses feel young people are unprepared for the workplace.

BCC employment and skills policy manager Marcus Mason told TES that colleges needed to work more closely with businesses to improve their students' employability and that this provision should be inspected.

"Students are leaving schools and colleges unprepared for the world of work," Mr Mason added. "It's a clich but that's what we are hearing from our members all the time. What we are keen to see for colleges is that the accountability framework encourages them to work more closely with businesses and for inspectors to take that seriously when making judgements.

"We are interested in having an inspection framework that looks at a broad set of outcomes about how colleges engage with local businesses and develop soft skills.

"One of the key reasons for going to school or college is to succeed later on in life. It's really important that when inspectors look at educational establishments they should only be deemed outstanding if they are in that respect."

Ofsted's most recent annual report found providers were not adequately preparing 16- to 18-year-olds for employment (bit.lyOfstedFEreport). Colleges were singled out for criticism, with the report concluding that they were not doing enough to make sure their vocational courses matched the needs of employers.

Giving evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee in January, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said the inspectorate would scrutinise the further education sector more closely and warned that inspectors could fail colleges that were not engaging with employers.

David Corke, director of education and skills policy for the Association of Colleges, said providers were already inspected on how well they responded to employers. "However, more can be done by employers to encourage young people to undertake technical and professional education to give them the skills employers need," he said. "Colleges already work, on average, with up to 597 employers, from large multinationals to small local businesses."

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, said many institutions already had "fantastic" links with businesses, but she acknowledged that others needed to "raise their game and have more strategic conversations".

Dr Sedgmore also questioned whether Ofsted was best-placed to make judgements about colleges' links with employers. "Ofsted should not become the be-all and end-all of a final grade for colleges; it is one part of a mosaic of assessment," she said.

`Essential' collaboration

The BCC estimates that about 250 general FE and sixth-form colleges are members of their local chamber of commerce. But the body is keen to deepen its engagement with the education sector. Its annual workforce survey of almost 3,000 companies, released in October, reveals that 88 per cent of businesses believe school-leavers are unprepared for work (bit.lyBCCpoll).

It plans to carry out a further survey later this year to determine how strong the links between business and education are, as well as organising a summit to bring the sectors together.

The BCC has also launched a pilot project with 27 chambers to offer new services to schools and colleges, including better information about local job markets and help with recruiting governors who have business experience.

Colleges should be doing more in this respect, according to the BCC's Mr Mason. "We want to see more governors from business communities sitting on their boards to hold their management teams to account about developing links with business," he added.

Bridgwater College in Somerset won the employer engagement prize at the 2014 TES FE Awards for its close work with luxury goods manufacturer Mulberry. Jenny Ashworth, the college's head of academic partnership and marketing, said it was "essential" for colleges to work with as many businesses as possible.

"Personally, I think it should be part of what Ofsted look at when inspecting colleges," she said. "All our governors have some sort of business expertise; I think that's vital in terms of understanding business needs and ultimately shaping our future."

Should you `buy in' governors?

A leading member of the British Chambers of Commerce is calling for FE colleges to pay for specialist governors to drive improvement.

Bhanu Dhir, head of policy at Black Country Chamber of Commerce and former vice-principal of City of Wolverhampton College, believes more business people should have a "significant voice" on college boards.

"Profitable organisations buy in top-level non-executives; I wonder why colleges are not understanding this," he says. "Colleges should buy in non-executive resources to enable them to be more successful in the future."

A recent government report (bit.lyReformImpact) finds some colleges are "actively" looking at paying to attract governors to fulfil specific roles, in line with guidance published by the Charity Commission.

But Richard Atkins, president of the Association of Colleges, says he is "uneasy" with the idea because colleges are community assets.

"I don't know anybody who wants to [pay governors]," he adds. "Where we have had governors who are specialists in finance or IT, they have been all too willing to do it on a voluntary basis."


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