Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The College celebrates Community Day across our campuses

As most readers of my blog will already be well aware, I’m passionate about social action. For me, learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom or workshop, and the education experience shouldn’t begin and end when a student walks off one of our campuses. In my view, we would be doing our students a great disservice if we didn’t help them become more rounded individuals by encouraging them to take part in social action projects.
Staff and students ready themselves for a litter pick
Today is our Community Day at East Kent College, and I’m satisfied that it has been one of the best in our history. Our Community Days are a time when all of our students and staff, across our campuses take on a project to benefit the area they live in.

Students help spruce up Kingsnorth Gardens
This year we have seen projects involving students cooking food for charity, cleaning up public gardens in Folkestone, litter picking elsewhere in their communities and taking on a full range of projects. Many of these projects are related to students course areas as well, giving them the opportunity to not just learn more, but also benefit their community.

This year, I made my way down to our Folkestone Campus to see the work being done by our construction programme area on a long-term community project. The College is working to bring a historic building called Radnor Park Lodge back into use. As part of a wider partnership with Shepway District Council, the heritage building will also become a tea room, run by catering and supported learning students once complete.
Shepway District Council leader David Monk sees some of the work done by students
The project epitomises the philosophy of the College, and my personal educational philosophy; in essence, improving the outcome of our students by getting them engaged on live commercial projects, while also doing something to bring real and tangible benefits to the local community. And that’s what East Kent College is about really; improving everything in our communities, whether that’s people, or places.
Staff worked on one of Margate's community gardens

Monday, 8 February 2016

The inevitable consequence of 'education snobbery'

For the past few decades successive British governments and industry leaders have promoted the idea that the gold standard of education is one garnered at a university. These bastions of knowledge, it has been said, will produce the right type of employee which we need to grow UK PLC and prosper as a country, and individually.

In fact, I myself am a product of the ‘higher education for all’ mind-set. I grew up in a family where a university education was something to strive for; an aspiration for myself and my siblings. And I took a committed approach to pursuing a very pure academic pathway, taking on A Levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. It led to me becoming the first in my family to take a degree, with Maths as my chosen subject. So I am, in essence, the epitome of the education policy to funnel as many people through the higher education pipeline as possible. And now, I intend to tell you just how wrong that philosophy is – not for every young learner, but for many.

There is no doubt that for some, a university degree is the way forward – it was the way forward for me – but, and this is the crucial bit, it should not be considered the best or indeed only way for a young person to get an education.

We’ve seen the results of this philosophy coming home to roost recently with the publication of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) ‘Employer Skills Survey 2015’. The report highlights what many in FE have known all along – that there has been a growing divide between the needs of employers, and the skills students enter the workforce with.

The survey of some 91,000 employers highlighted the fact that almost a quarter of job vacancies were left unfilled due to a shortage of skills. Many sectors which rely heavily on real tradecraft currently lack the new blood needed to keep them alive and flourishing.

Students on our Folkestone Campus learn some of the real tradecraft required in the local economy
In Kent – as across the UK – the construction sector is a key industry. Its contribution to the local economy is enormous, with a whopping 15 per cent of all jobs up for grabs in the county part of the sector. It’s well known already that there is a severe shortage in the number of skilled construction workers. The report once again highlighted that a lack of new blood is stifling it – and that, it could be argued, will have knock on consequences. If there’s not the manpower to build, construction inevitably takes longer. That could lead to new offices, homes and regeneration projects taking longer than they should, potentially stunting local economic growth prospects for the longer term.

It has, undoubtedly become a societal issue – our nation no longer appreciates the value of a high quality technical education. But this must change, and it is beginning to do so. There are clear indications that the Government, at least, understands the value of FE. Education secretary Nicky Morgan recently said we must ‘abandon education snobbery’, and allow colleges to promote themselves freely in schools. The principle is certainly something which I, and many in FE welcome; now we just need to see all of the the fine detail.
The Education secretary Nick Morgan has called for the abandonment of 'education snobbery' Pic: Policy Exchange
  The FE sector will need schools to work with colleges in much the same way as they work to promote taking a university degree – not as a second choice to an academic education, but as an equal to one. We need to wash away this idea that a further education is somehow a poor man’s version of higher education, or that the students who go on to attend college have been ‘failed’ by their teachers. Instead we must level the playing field and ensure colleges are thought of in the same positive way which universities are.

The comments coming from government on this matter have been positive, and are to be commended, as is the drive for a new generation of apprentices. But there is still inherent prejudice, with equally negative comments emerging from the man who heads up Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw. In a speech Sir Michael deemed the whole FE Sector ‘inadequate at best’. In my view, this type of commentary is unhelpful at best, and downright disingenuous at worst. Many FE colleges provide excellent technical, vocational training which can lead students directly into the local workforce.

So why then does this prejudice continue? That’s the question which I would ask of Sir Michael, and all of those teachers who feel they have ‘failed’ if their pupils end up going to an FE college rather than taking the route to university. The only time they’ll truly fail their students is if they continue with this outdated, outmoded and frankly archaic belief that a one-size-fits-all academic education is best, and fail to give young people the opportunity for a technical, vocational one.

If we don’t solve this prejudice against the world of FE, then there’s little doubt that the emerging skills shortage will continue to grow.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Inspirational actions by College student

There are a number of things I absolutely love about my job. One of them is seeing how our students progress through the College, and slowly but surely improve and grow as individuals. It’s a real passion of mine to improve the outcomes of students. And in seeing all these students make that journey, every now and again a student will come along who has their own inspirational story.

One of these students was honoured at an Association of Colleges (AoC) reception at the Houses of Parliament yesterday after being highly commended in its prestigious Student of the Year Awards.
Emily Mackay’s story at East Kent College started in just the same way as thousands of other students who have passed through our campuses over the years.

Emily celebrates with College tutors and family

She first enrolled in September 2013, choosing to study Level 3 Professional Cookery.  But just months after beginning her course Emily was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer known as Osteosarcoma. The rare type of cancer – which she refers to as her ‘designer cancer’ – affects just 150 people across the UK each year; a fact which motivated Emily to begin a blog to highlight it.
After the diagnosis Emily underwent a variety of treatments – including surgery – which pushed the cancer into remission. She was given the all-clear by doctors in July 2014, re-joining the College in September that year.

But Emily’s battle with cancer was not over, and just months later this time last year, she was diagnosed as having a tumour on her lung. She said at the time that she wasn’t surprised at another tumour being found, bravely stating she was ‘just happy to have got this far’. In a heroic move she vowed not to let cancer rule her life, or waste her time, and decided to continue her studies while fighting the illness. Throughout her second round of chemotherapy, Emily courageously continued to study diligently. Following treatment she was told that her pelvic tumour and lung tumour were stable.

Emily with Thanet South MP Craig Mackinlay

But just before Christmas last November, while in London receiving radiotherapy for the tumour in her lung, Emily lost all sensation in her arm. She was rushed to hospital where she was diagnosed with a brain tumour around the size of a walnut. She underwent surgery and the tumour was successfully removed. However over Christmas it returned, and in January she was back in London for another operation to try and remove it. She’s currently recovering from the surgery, but managed to attend the AoC function yesterday.

She received the highly commended award for showing commitment to her College work while displaying heroic levels of bravery during the last couple of years. I’m not sure many teenagers would have had the strength of character to continue when faced with such adversity. Her tale is truly an inspirational one – and one which I think we should all pay heed to. She has never given up, like so many people would have under those circumstances, nor has she approached things with negativity. She would have had the perfect excuse to quit College and simply do as she had pleased, but she chose to keep learning, keep trying, keep working despite the difficulties; in an age of aspiration, I know that’s something I personally strive for. And it’s because of that, that I would like to pass on my heartfelt congratulations to Emily. She’s an inspiration to everyone at East Kent College, as well as students across the land. She deserves that accolade, and many more in the future.

If you’d like to read more about Emily and her battle against cancer, you can do so by visiting her blog at