The Coming of Age of FE

Launch of a seminal book by UCL Institute of Education titled 'The Coming of Age for Further Education (FE)?' has been supported and contributed to by City & Guilds

12 June 2015 / Be the first to comment

Last week saw the launch of a seminal book by UCL Institute of Education titled ‘The Coming of Age for Further Education (FE)?’ which has been supported and contributed to by City & Guilds. It focuses on the past and future of the FE sector, building on themes we raised last year in our ‘Sense & Instability’ report. I joined several keynote speakers, and over a hundred participants, in discussing this history of constant change and the impact it’s had on skills and employment in the UK over the past 30 years.

With no fewer than 61 Secretaries of State with responsibility for Skills and Employment, and 13 major Acts of Parliament since 1981 it is no wonder that vocational education is so misunderstood. The numbers are stark, and serve to underline the fact that constant churn has resulted in collective amnesia at political and official levels, frustrating attempts to achieve a holistic approach which meets the needs of those it is intended to serve.

We can no longer hide from the fact that we are not competing globally when it comes to skills. The OECD’s recent report shows the skills gap in the UK is wider than other developed countries. Youth unemployment in the UK is still unacceptably high. And there is very little funding left for adult learning, outside of apprenticeships – less now after Chancellor George Osborne recent funding cuts announcement. We urgently need to address this state of crisis if we want the UK economy to remain competitive and prepare people for the jobs of the future.

Last autumn City & Guilds published a report, ‘Sense & Instability’, which makes recommendations on improving the skills and employment landscape in the UK based on a review of the past three decades – themes so closely echoed in this book that no more compelling argument can be made for a new approach in the sector.

It’s been far too long since such an important book for FE has been published, and its authors and contributors should be congratulated for what they achieved in writing it. The book is a very important historical retrospective, and to borrow the phrase from Winston Churchill -
"The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."

So can we identify opportunities through the lens of what has gone before? What needs to change?

Firstly, getting people into fulfilling work must be front and centre to our purpose. This is not only good for learners, but it’s good for business, local economies, as well as overall competitive productivity.

Next we need to step up and lead with more commercial acumen. In her foreword to the book, Lorna Unwin reminds us that FE colleges have survived numerous changes and indeed adaptability is one of its most noted assets and we need to use that to pave the way to the future. We need to embrace digital platforms and technology to find innovative ways of delivering what our customers want. With more pressure on FE to get the transition from education into employment right, we also need to work closer with employers to ensure the right skills are being developed.

The new government is committed to delivering 3 million apprenticeships over the next five years - that's a hugely ambitious target and the clock is already ticking. We need to make sure we have our priorities right. The sector has the expertise and experience of delivering high quality teaching and learning across sectors and levels. That is just the kind of expertise the UK needs if it's going to deliver on apprenticeships in the right order - quality first, quantity follows.

And finally, we need to make a coherent case to the government about why they should support FE. We need to mobilise and demonstrate the essential role FE plays in UK PLC – and here I’m speaking to business as well colleges and training providers.  PwC's 2015 annual global CEO survey highlighted CEO’s growing concern with lack of skills to recruit the future workforce. It’s time for business to champion lifelong learning – show how FE can be at the forefront of driving the UK economy forward, winning the global skills race, and fulfilling the dreams and ambitions of learners, young and old.
And let's hope in 20 years’ time when the next (digital?) edition is published, we will be writing full of optimism and confidence about FE’s ongoing place in our economy and society.

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