Career colleges: the right places at the right time

3rd August 2018 at 00:00
Having drawn up a way to revive technical education five years ago, Lord Baker finds the stars are aligning for his career-minded professional learning routes

I launched career colleges in October 2013. Initially just a concept, my desire was to create more specialist technical and professional routes for 14- to 19-year-olds – steering young people to the many new and exciting careers they were unlikely to have known about.

I handed my vision over to Ruth Gilbert, CEO of the newly formed Career Colleges Trust (recently joined by Bev Jones as a joint CEO). I said I’d like to see 25 career colleges to be in operation by 2018, and am delighted that we have come close to reaching this target. It is a huge achievement considering the difficult financial landscape in which FE colleges have been operating over the past five years.

The crux of career colleges was to meet the needs of industry by preparing young people for the world of work. I wanted educators to work more closely with employers to ensure that skill needs could be met. Who better to design and help deliver the curriculum in FE colleges than businesses themselves?

I have talked frequently over the past few years about the huge skills mismatch in this country, which is likely to be exacerbated by Brexit. We have too many graduates studying biology and a foreign language in this age of instantaneous translation, yet not enough apprentices are being taught the many technical skills that are needed to keep our nation’s economy buoyant.

The snobbery that killed off technical education in the 1950s is still very much alive, and we must continue to talk widely and passionately about the many successes resulting from high-quality technical training.

The 22 sector-specialist career colleges now open across the UK (a further eight are in development) cover six priority skill-shortage sectors: healthcare, hospitality, digital technology, professional services, construction and engineering. Every single young person leaving a career college goes on to further/higher education, an apprenticeship or meaningful employment, which fast-tracks their career progression.

Support from top employers enables our students to become involved in “live” industry projects. This helps them to develop enterprise and communication skills, alongside technical skills, which are so crucial for employment success in today’s digital economy. Top employers involved to date include: Amazon Web Services, BBC, Accenture, Ford Aerospace, Hyatt, RAF, Raytheon, Royal Society for Public Health, Turner and Townsend, Deutsche Bank, Merlin and various regional NHS trusts.

Each career college has a board that is accountable to the governing body of the college/training provider and a minimum of 40 per cent of board members must be local/regional employers for the relevant sector.

Another unique aspect of our model is that of extended business hours for students to mirror the world of work. This does not mean more class-based teaching. It’s about ensuring the use of project-based learning and engagement with employers through mentors and coaching techniques. This is something common to the excellent vocational education systems seen around the world.

What we didn’t dare hope was that the government would go on to develop a skills strategy and T-levels programme that would be so closely aligned with what we’ve been propagating for the past five years. From extended industry placements to high-quality technical teaching, the career-colleges model mirrors current government policy and is an excellent fit for T-level preparation.

‘We know it works’

And we know our model works. Last month, the Career Colleges Trust held its fourth annual conference during which we heard from students themselves. By starting this route at the age of 14, many of our students find themselves two years ahead of their peers by the age of 16 – achieving both technical and academic qualifications, alongside real industry experience.

Over the past five years, we have had nothing but support from both employers and colleges. No one can doubt the wisdom of employer-supported learning with real partnerships being formed between industry and educators. We currently have more than 1,000 young people benefiting, with the number set to increase dramatically over the next five years.

I am proud of how far the Career Colleges Trust has come since we launched the pioneering concept. Our colleges have shown themselves to be adaptable, forward-thinking and more than capable of stepping up to help address the skill shortage – which is no easy feat at a time of such financial hardship within FE. These colleges have set an example to the rest of the sector, with their students being given unique opportunities and the best possible start to their careers.

I am confident the trust will continue to thrive and to support educators to forge vital links with industry. With the Department for Education clearly recognising the value of our model, I am most excited about what more can and will be achieved in the future.

Lord Baker is founder and trustee of the Career Colleges Trust

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