Why collaboration is the key to college success

Let's stop talking about colleges, schools and universities as separate sectors and work together, says Simon Hewitt

The wind of change: Colleges, schools and universities need greater collaboration, argues Simon Hewitt, vice-principal of Dundee and Angus College

The festive break is a time for family, a time to reflect on the year gone by and a time to set some personal goals for the new year ahead.  So, as thousands of staff and learners across Scotland prepare for the first classes of 2020, are we heading into this new year with fresh hope or a familiar sense of apprehension?

It is clear that the FE sector continues to face financial challenges. However, it is also clear that there are deeper challenges around recruitment, retention and attainment. But why?


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College recruitment woes

A wise person once told me that colleges are simple beasts: you get the learners in, you give them the best experience possible and you support them on to their next destination. Easy. So why is it so hard? Why is recruitment declining? Why are retention and attainment rates not improving? 

Maybe this is our first mistake. Are we too focused on targets? Do we have an education system that is driven by numbers, financial or otherwise? Our natural reaction is to look at a number and compare it with previous years'. However, every number has a story and I think that we’re at a stage where we need to better understand the story, because the simple truth is: the story is changing.

So what do I mean by this? Well, if we look at recruitment, there are a number of forces at work here. The widening-access agenda ensures that learners from the most deprived areas of Scotland are supported to access higher education.  While this is a positive and welcome step, it can impact on recruitment in colleges and isn’t necessarily always the best option or choice for some.

Recently, Scottish media reported that two-thirds of 100 universities and colleges within the UK had seen an increase in dropout rates over the past five years, with two Scottish institutions right at the top. One university, an institution our college has fantastic links with, had seen the biggest increase, with an 8.6 percentage point rise over a five-year period. 

Are learners ready for college or university?

As someone who works closely with them and a graduate of this university myself, I know that the student experience there is excellent and the support they offer is fantastic. So why such a sharp increase? Were these learners ready for university? How well were they guided and supported in choosing their pathway?    

This leads me on to the next challenge. The range of options, choices and pathways available to learners has never been greater. The recent emphasis on foundation and graduate apprenticeships, as well as the drive to grow the senior phase offer, has meant there are new, exciting (and equitable) ways of reaching the same goal. However, how well are these pathways and options known? Are they really seen as equitable in the eyes of everyone? 

We are very lucky to work with two fantastic, forward-thinking local authorities. However, there is still work to do to enhance their knowledge of the wider college offer, including all of the pathways and routes we can provide. In a number of cases, those providing the guidance and support to young learners have only ever experienced the traditional university route, so we need to ensure that the college offer has "parity of esteem" with other options and choices. 

Also, as part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, schools are being steered towards an "alternative curriculum" route that could result in them offering a broader portfolio of qualifications and options, such as NPAs (National Progression Awards) and PDAs (Professional Development Awards) instead of the more traditional National qualifications. Again, how will this impact on colleges? What will it mean for our role in the future?

If we aren’t sure on our role in the future, how do we also deliver on the Skills Alignment project, as part of the Enterprise and Skills Review? How do we ensure our employers have the right people with the right skills? So many policy agendas, so many challenges to navigate.

So what’s the solution to all of these challenges? 

Well, firstly, let’s stop seeing them as challenges – our mentality HAS to change. These are all opportunities, opportunities to think differently, opportunities to work in collaboration, opportunities to co-design options and services that are learner-centred and opportunities to define our own important role.

Let’s stop talking about schools, colleges and universities and let’s start talking about environments for learning. Just like a plant needs the right environment to grow and flourish, so, too, do our learners and these will differ from plant to plant, learner to learner. Breaking down the silos created by institutions and working together has never been more important, particularly given the changing educational and wider support needs of today’s society.

We need to be clear on the value and benefits of choosing the college route and why it can be a better option for learners, depending on their learning style and approach.

So it is time to rewrite the story together. We all need to work more collaboratively for the good of our learners, our regions and our country. It is the only way we will truly see a significant positive shift in recruitment, retention and attainment. 

New Year. New mentality. Same amazing sector.

Simon Hewitt is vice-principal for curriculum and attainment at Dundee and Angus College

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