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'We need to move from soundbites to genuine support'

The further education sector has made the most of its position as the 'scrappy underdog of education', writes Deborah Millar

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The further education sector has made the most of its position as the 'scrappy underdog of education', writes Deborah Millar

The value of FE colleges is misunderstood. Funding is limited, the niche occupied is poorly defined and – up until recent crises have necessitated it – its value has been largely ignored by the government. However, FE has made the most of its position as the scrappy underdog of education. It may not have been making headlines, but it has been turning students’ goals into reality by becoming more innovative and more in touch with the changing needs of modern society.

I’ve seen this first hand at Grimsby Institute Group. Frankly, funding can be hard to come by – we certainly don’t have as much money as universities do. What this does mean though, is that we make a lot of bids for project money, which helps us work on innovative things that we might not ordinarily have come across.

For example, we’re developing a Microsoft "mixed reality" project, which is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments where physical and digital objects interact in real time. It aims to go beyond classroom theory and provide safe, simulated experiences of working within food and drink manufacturing processes. This can help employees to complete their hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) course, enabling food handlers and manufacturers to ensure the food they produce is safe for consumption.

Industry partners

Our partnerships with industry are valuable on a number of levels – giving us greater insight into what companies are looking for in prospective employees, for example. In FE, it is often essential to have a partner in industry. It’s a fact of life, because of the way we are set up and funded. But it means we produce learners who are up to date with how the world works.

In short, the challenge of limited funding becomes the strength. It is like being a designer – when you have a tight brief, you have to be really creative to meet it. FE is the same, to survive and thrive against competition, you need to be passionate and creative. That’s not to say we’d turn down a bit more financial backing, of course.

While the good work and innovation that FE colleges do is starting to be recognised – for example, the T levels announcement and more funding being promised in the chancellor’s Spring Statement – we do need more consistency in the support we get. In particular, more investment in IT infrastructure and resources is needed, yet we’ve just had the rug pulled from under them with cuts to Jisc. It means yet more tough decisions must be made.

Necessity not luxury

It feels a well-worn point but it is worth repeating: technology isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity. Here at Grimsby we’re spread over several campuses and have people learning flexibly around life commitments. Rural inclusion is also high on our agenda and factors into several projects we’ve got running. We’re only able to keep a consistent offering to students in all locations because of our virtual learning environment (Canvas), which means students can access course materials remotely using mobile apps.

Beyond funding, we need recognition, guidance and support from government on how we adopt and use tech. Without that, there won’t be any systematic improvement on the issues where tech can help – like digital skills gaps, the challenges of offering flexible remote learning or teacher workloads bloated by endless marking.

I have been a teacher for 28 years across three FE colleges. It’s been a period of ups and downs in terms of the funds and attention we’re getting. We’ll keep rising to the challenge and do the best we can with the hand we’re dealt, but it’s high time we recognised the meaningful role the sector has in education and moved from soundbites to genuine support.

Deborah Millar is group director for digital learning technology at Grimsby Institute

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