All policy roads are leading to employer-focused education and increased regulation, which includes schools and colleges together in policy announcements for the first time under the present government.
For a long period, further education colleges have been missing in key papers with significant lobbying taking place to address this.
However, even though half the battle has been won with colleges mentioned in the mental health Green paper, Gatsby benchmarks and career learning pilots, we now have some identical items on school and college leaders' “to do” lists. Of course,we are all working to deliver high-quality education and financially viable institutions, but can these newfound synergies create a platform for increased engagement?
School and college engagement
Every change creates opportunity, and I see a real chance for school and college engagement that drives social mobility and enhances local economies, shifting away from the unhelpful competitive past we have seen in some parts of the country.
Clearly there are brilliant examples of strategic partnerships, multi-academy trusts and collaboration between schools, FE and sixth-form colleges across the country. However, for too long the reality has been an undertone of competition, driven by different funding approaches across the sector, separate performance metrics, and policy initiatives in the same student markets (e.g., studio schools and UTCs). Area reviews also created uncertainty and changes in further education, whilst sixth forms were not included in the review. This was compounded by national demographics in a period of long decline that hit different parts of the sector in different recruitment years.
Gatsby then came along, and mandated engagement and focused everyone on meeting another raft of criteria. Resulting in the potential for bombarding local business for talks, visits and placements all around. However, locally we have worked to use the Gatsby benchmarks and Industry placements as a real opportunity to bring together best practice that works for our area.
Boston College has a modest (in college terms) £15.5 million revenue and employs around 500 staff. However, our approach to engagement results in us working with over 400 businesses annually, and we have secured around £9.5 million of investment to develop our campus, which required significant employer support. We have established mechanisms for engagement through a series of business breakfasts, client management processes and representation on boards and groups. Historically there has been limited collaboration with schools outside of recruitment activities and careers teachers.
Through meeting all of our headteachers locally, we recognised the synergy of our challenges and discussed ways that a more strategic approach could create co-operation and collaboration. As one example of engagement, we recognised that through delivering training locally to careers teachers, it became apparent that access to our companies to learn more about the jobs roles on offer had previously been a barrier. SMEs do not always promote and market vacancies widely, which means there can be a lack of understanding of how many opportunities there are and earning potential.
Through our business development manager’s contacts, we facilitated a full industry day for careers teachers and students, with factory tours and workshop visits, to three of our main employers. The feedback from our schools was that new insights into industry were gained by staff, and, more importantly, it helped to raise the aspirations of students, giving them confidence that they could secure local careers that were attractive. Clearly some of these features are unique to a rural area that is historically a low-skill, low-wage economy. However, meeting aspects of Gatsby benchmarks and simultaneously strengthening information, advice and guidance are key areas for schools and colleges to work together for mutual societal benefit. It’s time for us to talk more.
Jo Maher is principal of Boston College