Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Let’s all give 100 per cent to build our society

What's the purpose of your college? Is it to simply churn out a generation of automatons, equipped with the skills to ply their trade, but not much more? I ask, because of the noisy criticism recently from a number of quarters, regarding the 20 per cent off the job training rule for apprentices.

There’s little doubt the apprentices we train within our Group are growing many more skills as a consequence of the 20 per cent off the job training they receive.

Off the job training gives apprentices the opportunity to learn even more new skills
But perhaps the issue is about something even more important than the huge range of soft skills students pick up.

In fact, I believe it’s about the future prosperity of UK PLC, and can there, really, be a bigger reason to embrace this rule than that?

In training new apprentices, we're growing the skills not just for an individual, or a business, or a community. We are developing those skills for our country’s long term prosperity. What do I mean by that? Well, in order to develop rounded workers, who can remain agile in a busy and dynamic employment market, and therefore help contribute to the wider growth of our society, we need skilled young people who understand the different ways of doing things. They need to be rounded, without organisational indoctrination or bias. They need to understand the different ways of working, and that can only come in one way.

Giving apprentices off the job training opens them up to different experiences
To develop those skills, our apprentices require the checks and balances that come with spending time networking with their peers, learning new ways of doing things and benefitting from the myriad of positive experiences they'll have within their college environment. It’s exactly the skills they build during their time at College which will enable them to progress from their apprenticeship, and, should they want to, move to another organisation. That enables them to become valuable contributors to our economy on a wider level, giving them the tools to navigate our jobs market fluidly, and transition into new roles and businesses more easily.

There’s another reason why apprentices should have that 20 per cent of time away from the workplace. That’s the social aspect of it. It’s a good thing for them to mix with their peers, and to be able to build their networks. And for younger apprentices, it’s nice to give them a forum where they’re able to socialise, and have some fun that’s not workplace related. In my view, it’s that ‘apprentice experience’ which would be lacking if the 20 per cent rule were to be diluted. 

The ability to mix with peers in a College environment ensures apprentices develop their networks, adding to the experience.
And if that were to happen, then you’ll simply push young people – who Government is encouraging to engage in apprenticeships – into other pathways, ultimately limiting our country’s opportunity to grow and flourish in the future.

You can see I am a passionate supporter of the 20 per cent off the job rule for apprentices. As a Group we’re clear about the benefits it brings, and, as a consequence are advocates of it. However, I recognise business sees an apprentice – rightly, in my view – as a real employee, and therefore needs them to add value from day one. I believe the message we all need to be taking to business, and the wider community, is that 20 per cent off the job for that apprentice will keep adding value in perpetuity, and result in a better, more rounded and effective employee over the longer term.

So we come back to the question we began with; what’s the purpose of your college? I know what our Group’s purpose is, and it’s to ensure we nurture the next generation of skilled employees, who can play an active role in contributing to every element of our society, and the communities we serve, rather than just one business. That’s why we must ensure the 20 per cent of off the job training rule remains, and we are active participants in it.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Festive Cheer all round – but will there be a New Year headache?

Despite the song, there are a range of things I’d like for Christmas, which aren’t my two front teeth (which, thankfully I still have – despite some very fast balls at the batting crease). Near the top of my wish list for Santa – or Justine Greening in this case – is a genuine chance to engage with pupils at schools and show the opportunities available in technical and vocational pathways.

So when the Government’s new Careers Strategy was launched recently, alongside new guidance from the Department for Education which demands schools allow access to FE providers, it was almost as if Christmas had come early for the sector.  This means that come the New Year, all local authority maintained schools and academies are compelled to ensure that technical education and training providers are given access and the opportunity to speak to pupils about apprenticeships, while the Careers Strategy compels schools – and indeed colleges – to develop their own careers advice provision.

Why does all of this matter? Because schools can be resistant to promoting the merits of technical education or the opportunities offered through apprenticeships, meaning that often, pupils who would be perfectly suited to a vocational qualification miss out on the option because they’re unaware of its existence. There is, after all, a financial imperative to retaining a pupil for many schools which can lead to vested interests, and a closed shop. That kind of thing does nothing to open up opportunity for our young people, and those who require an education which will give them the skills they need to join our workforce.

So what’s the possible New Year headache? Well, when the clock strikes 12.01am on 2 January, and schools are supposed to have a policy statement which outlines how we, as an FE provider, can engage with their pupils, will they? Will there actually be that policy statement, and more than this, will there be any greater engagement? The old saying goes that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink; that may well relate heavily to this new guidance, and wider strategy. I would hope that schools across the nation do suddenly open up access, and give guidance to their pupils on technical pathways, but – and call me a cynic if you will – I won’t be holding my breath on this front.

With that said, I can quite clearly state that if Government does, this time, manage to change things and improve access, opening up opportunities, this Christmas will have been one of the best for our sector in a number of years. And with the recently launched Social Mobility strategy, it may lead to significantly improved outcomes for many within our society.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Dropping balls and feverish work: the importance‎ of a plan

One of my managers recently had a bad day. It was a day where thousands of words were written, and frankly, he suffered. He met it with ebullient dignity, but the pain was quite clearly etched on his face. And do you want to know why? Because he'd failed to plan...

The A-Team were well known for their love of a good plan!
 So let's turn to our cultural staples quickly. You may not know this, but I’m a bit of a Harry Potter fan. In the books, one of the main characters Dumbledore quite clearly has a plan. He knows where things are going, before they ever get there. And what about TV? Well, just watch a single episode of the A Team and it’ll inject the importance of a plan – how else would a plan come together! And sports – no team takes to the pitch without a clear plan they’ll be seeking to execute; not even the England football team! Why? ‎Because you don't get very far without a plan. That mantra is something our Colleges’ leadership understand all too well. We develop strategic vision on the basis we want the best possible outcomes, rather than just any old outcome. And we tie that vision to clear objectives and aims so we’re creating a genuinely clear map for our Colleges to reach their destination. 

Without a plan, you're likely to be left working frantically and the result's unlikely to be anywhere near as good
So back to that poor manager looking a touch woeful. There's little doubt that he's decent at working under pressure. But with any significant piece of work, working well under pressure is rarely enough to deliver a great outcome: you'll just never get the best result with that style. There are a tremendous amount of people who ‎are extremely talented at what they do, and yet they fail to convert that talent into anything deliverable because there's been no plan. And speaking as an educator who’s passionate about helping people reach their potential, there’s nothing worse than watching talent being squandered. That’s true of this manager. Because however good his work was, it would always have been better, tighter and more focused if he’d dedicated a bit more time to it, by ensuring a plan was developed to deliver it. That's a lesson I’m hopeful he's now learned. 

Through this entire episode though, one thing did stand out and make me particularly proud. I often talk to our Colleges’ about having a collegiate atmosphere. One where people work with one another, helping their colleagues and driving forward as one team. And you know what, as that manager feverishly typed, I felt proud to see colleagues rallying around him, helping and assisting – even if just by making him a coffee – and giving him their time.

The collegiate ‎atmosphere which that manager’s failure to plan had generated was fantastic, and highlighted very clearly just how well people work together at our Colleges’ when the pressure’s on. And you know what, it’s the same when the pressure’s not on as well. And I know that all of the Colleges’ senior leaders would say that actually, a lot of our plans are based around developing that kind of atmosphere. So while that manager clearly didn’t have a plan – but, I’m sure will next time – it’s great to see that some of our plans are working out.

And you know – I love it when a plan comes together!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Carpet bombing with surveys

Over the course of the twentieth century, airpower became a prime military resource. The strategy, it seemed, was to bombard the enemy into submission using volume, rather than targeted, precise strikes. Weight of numbers was, by all accounts, all that mattered. Not just in terms of actual destruction, but also in terms of attrition.

But what exactly has Western military strategy got to do with further education? The exact same volume strategy espoused by our air force seems to pervade elements of FE, such as the student survey.

Saturation is reaching endemic proportions in student surveys, with leaders using them as a crutch to validate decisions. But just how accurate are they in finding out the true facts of the situation?

When we take a quick look at some of the highest profile polls (essentially like a student survey, but on a grander scale) recently, they aren’t doing so well at making predictions. Polls on Brexit, General Election 2015, and a range of other topics have highlighted just how out of step these surveys can be with the reality of the situation.

And it’s much the same issue with surveys in the further education sector. Our College has witnessed similar levels in student surveys year on year, and while that’s no bad thing – as we have relatively high levels of student satisfaction – I’m starting to believe there should be more variation. For instance, our offer for students has changed – and I’d argue improved – with new facilities, new opportunities and an enhanced student experience. Despite these changes, student satisfaction has remained largely the same, with minimal fluctuations.

So why are we seeing level survey results, with no great change? Could it be that people are becoming apathetic to surveys due to the sheer number of them? In a digital society, we’re constantly being confronted by endless surveys, with marketers, colleagues, friends and everyone else asking our opinion. Survey fatigue is happening, and we seem to be living it in FE right now.

There may also be some cause to suggest that students’ survey responses are driven by their desire to support and protect tutors, potentially skewing the results away from the reality of the situation. This is particularly likely in ‘end of year’ satisfaction surveys, by which point students will have built strong connections with their tutors.

Whether the surveys are accurate or not though, perhaps the more important question is whether we, in FE and our wider society, are becoming excessively reliant on surveys to guide the work we’re doing? I think surveys are becoming a crutch, and giving people false hope that what they are doing is right. And that’s a problem, as you’ll never get what people actually want by adopting that approach.

So what’s the answer to this problem? Well this is where we can return to military airpower. When senior leaders in the Air Force began to recognize that a strategy of bombing everything was not a particularly effective one, they moved to a far more targeted, so-called ‘precision’ strategy. This involved work to tackle specific targets, and I’m sure you’ll all remember those videos from the Gulf War of commanders watching smart-bombs being laser-guided towards their targets.

If we translate that into our survey issue, should we not be using qualitative analysis – which removes potential positive bias due to students seeking to protect tutors – with heavily targeted individual surveys to really delve deeply into issues?
We may not get as many consistently good results, but there’s every chance it’ll give us better, more substantial and meaningful intelligence so that we can really start to drive regular improvements in what we do. And surely that’s exactly the result we all want for our students.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

The Importance of Supporting Alumni

I recently got the opportunity to meet with one of our former students who’s on a quest to develop his skills in Kickboxing. Already a five time World Champion, Elliott is now looking to continue improving in the sport and competing at the highest levels.
Helping Elliott with some sponsorship
Elliot got in touch with me to ask for support from the College and as one of our alumni – as well as a Dover District Council apprentice whose training we currently provide – I felt it was important to support him with sponsorship.
Elliott in action!
But money doesn’t grow on trees, and particularly not in the world of FE. So just why do we care about helping our alumni, even when they’re working towards goals which are unrelated to the skills they developed at the College?

East Kent College prides itself on its work within the community. We have it in our mission statement; the words ‘East Kent College is committed to developing the prosperity and wellbeing of the communities it serves’ stand proud on our website, and in our minds.
Presenting James with his sponsorship
And those words aren’t just rhetorical fluff. It is our genuine aspiration to deliver beneficial change through taking an outward facing view of our world. We want to be embedded in our communities, developing links, building partnerships, and in the end, getting positive, tangible results for them.

As part of that drive supporting all of our students is key, as our College is like a family. Whether they’re alumni like Elliott or one of our other recent sponsorship recipients, James, or current students, giving them the support they need to develop more is important. It’s a holistic process, and one which enables those students to go further in their own lives.
James showcasing his skills on the slopes
Although our College doesn’t choose to support these alumni or students in order to get something out of it, often it’s paid back in dividends when those alumni come back to the College and support other students; inspiring them with their own stories and messages.
And you know what – you can never put a price on that kind of inspiration for our students. So, long may we continue to support our students and alumni in their quests, and good luck to each and every one of them for following their dreams.

Friday, 21 April 2017

The importance of 'off the job' apprenticeship training

Quality, not quantity should be the watchword of all technical and vocational training. There's good reason for this, but before I tell you why, let me explain one of the current points of contention within the sector.

Much has been made over recent apprenticeship reforms, with our Government going all guns blazing to deliver on their ambitious target of three million new apprentices by 2020.

With that approach lies a real danger, that these will not be the quality apprenticeships we all hoped for. One sticking point, that some are not fond of is the requirement for off the job training. Many providers have taken aim at the Government’s policy of ensuring apprentices receive off the job training which accounts for “20 per cent of the apprentice’s contracted employment hours across the whole apprenticeship.”

Our College has always prided itself on delivering really high quality, meaningful apprenticeships. From ensuring all apprentices receive a meaningful wage, to rigorously vetting businesses where we will place an apprentice, our belief is an apprenticeship should never be viewed as a simple, cost effective way of increasing staffing resources. It is just those beliefs which have helped our College’s apprenticeship team receive an ‘Outstanding’ grading by Ofsted. To make an apprenticeship meaningful, I believe there needs to be a substantial amount of off the job training, with apprentices visiting their college or other training provider, and using that time to develop the deeper skillset which they won’t learn while on the job.

In my years as a College Principal, I have spoken to many apprentices, and there’s little doubt they have all found their time at the College beneficial. It helps to crystallize their learning, giving them confidence that they are developing the right skills, while adding to the work based education they are receiving. It also gives them scope to develop their functional skills if required, ensuring that when they qualify, they are job-ready.

Without that all important off the job training, we are creating an environment where the currency of an apprenticeship can be devalued. An environment in which the true hallmarks of a quality apprenticeship no longer exist, and one where poor quality apprenticeships, which lack checks, balances and additional learning, can thrive.

I genuinely believe apprenticeships are an amazing way for employees to learn the real everyday tradecraft of their sector, but to contemplate removing that essential ‘day at College’ would do nothing but diminish quality. It may provide low quality training providers with a more profitable business model, but it’ll do nothing to promote technical and vocational excellence in the UK. And my view is that despite our College being a business, we are also a public servant. If we aren’t delivering a high quality product which benefits our apprentices, our communities and our employers, then we simply aren’t doing our job. To remove off the job training would, in my view, mean just that. Our apprentices do not deserve that, and nor do the communities we serve or the employers we work with.

The removal of this key time, would also mean fewer skills learned by the apprentice. There are a whole range of soft skills which are taught during time at College. In an era where employees move fluidly between jobs – with young people expected to have an average of nine through their working lives – these soft skills are gaining in importance. It is also key when considering that the average worker will also have one complete career change. Developing these apprentices so that they are able to be competitive in this type of environment is key to their success.

So rather than looking to fillet off the training to bump up profits, we should all be looking to take the opportunity to boost the skills of our apprentices, and create some of the finest technical and vocational tradespeople to ensure we are contributing to the prosperity of our country as we move forward.

So let me bring you back to that initial statement, that quality, not quantity, is what really matters. Delivering for the future of the UK really will require quality. Ensuring that our workforce can be competitive is critical to our future economic prosperity. If we are unable to do this, because we’ve chosen to cut corners, or provide poor quality training, it will do nothing but harm our country. That’s why I’m passionate about ensuring we get the opportunity to deliver training that is the highest possible quality for every single student and apprentice we have. And that is why we must retain off the job training as we move forward.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Guest blogging for a fantastic social action campaign

I recently got the opportunity to write a guest blog for the #iwill campaign. Anyone's who has read this blog before will know I'm passionate about social action at our Colleges, so I jumped at the chance. For any of you who may have missed the blog, I have posted it below. If you want to keep up to date with news from the #iwill campaign, make sure you sign up to their newsletter here.

How EKC's most recent Ofsted has really given the spotlight to youth social action

There’s little doubt of the positive impact that social action has on young people’s lives. It develops them as individuals, gives them greater resilience, inspires them and helps build a bridge into their local communities.

This is something I’ve become increasingly passionate about during my time as Principal of East Kent College and our social action programme has recently been given a spotlight by none other than the Government watchdog, Ofsted, in its recent inspection of the College.

Our College delivers social action during our three Community Days each year. These days enable the students to take part in an activity which enhances their communities, and the lives of those around them. They also give the students a chance to do something meaningful that also uses the specialist technical, vocational skills they are developing as part of their course. I always give the example of some of our construction students, who, seeing a damaged wall in the community rebuilt it. That developed their skills, while also leaving a lasting legacy in the community, which is far better than them just knocking down something they built in their workshop.

Building Services students helped do up a local charity centre
And it’s just this type of social action which Ofsted praised in their recent inspection report. The report highlighted that the students work, alongside professionals, helped them practise their vocational and team-working skills in a real world environment, while also allowing them to take pride in enhancing the lives of others in the heart of their communities. It brings the students into the community, and allows them to take ownership of a little part of it. I know that it builds pride as well, having seen students showing off their work to family and friends.

Hair and beauty students ran a pamper day for community members recently
It was a wonderful feeling for the whole College to have social action highlighted in the inspection report, and fantastic to see recognition of the value of social action for our students from Ofsted. It is this kind of promotion of social action which will mean more College leadership teams are willing to say #iwill and develop opportunities like these for their students, benefiting not just the learners, but also their communities for years to come.