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.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Technical Education to achieve ‘Genuine Parity of Esteem’

This week’s budget makes one thing clear; technical education is beginning to move towards parity with the academic route.

The 15 new T-Levels which have been announced will begin to develop a more easily understood route into technical and vocational learning. Gone will be thousands of disparate qualifications, which few understand fully, and in their place a new streamlined qualification which is as easily understood as the A-Level benchmark. These new pathways are the beginning of an acceptance by Government that for too long, academic education has ruled the roost in the UK, with too much emphasis being placed on the traditional University education. I’ve said it before, and will say it again for clarity; I myself am a product of this higher education pathway, so understand its benefits. But despite that, it is not, and never will be, the right route for every young person.

So just why is the Government looking to shift its policy now? With the backdrop of Brexit looming, it is becoming ever-more important to ensure that we are a nation of do-ers, with productivity levels on a par with our continental cousins. The most recent data suggests that far from our academic led education system delivering greater levels of productivity, it has actually dampened our workforce. The UK’s workforce is now generating, in one hour, 18 percentage points less than the other six members of the G7.

Philip Hammond has announced a new style of FE

And the best bit about this new FE shakeup? It’s going to get funding. Where for many years, we have seen significant real-term falls in funding for our learners, this time there’s a pot of cash available to ensure that colleges can actually deliver what’s required. The Government has listened, and is investing to ensure that we are able, as a nation, to develop the skills we need for the future.

FE is delivering the skills required to improve our nation's productivity

And that’s what a high quality technical and vocational offering really does; help us future proof our economies, our communities and the people who live and work within them. Investing this cash now will ensure our businesses have the skills they need to remain competitive, which in turn will improve the prosperity within our communities. And it’s just that, which will allow every person in our society to achieve their potential, rather than the misguided belief that anyone who doesn’t achieve a University degree has ultimately failed.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The rise of technical training

I tend to see opportunity in everything around me, so when the Prime Minister, Theresa May, launched her new Industrial Strategy, I was buoyed by the inclusion of Institutes of Technology.

First placed on the Government agenda in 2015, the concept is simple. Places which – through high quality provision – develop that specialist status which signals they are capable of delivering the highest standard, and levels, in particular curriculum areas.

Theresa May

Hardly a revolutionary concept and one which I’m sure many FE colleges are already aspiring to. However, the inclusion of this in the Prime Minister’s Industrial Strategy does signal a commitment to what we do. It shows a level of belief from Government that what we can deliver, is what the UK needs in order to develop our productivity, our workforce and our economy.

So what does this reaffirmed commitment to technical and vocational education mean? Well, unfortunately the announcement doesn’t mean that FE providers will all instantly be considered Institutes of Technology. And the capital funding pot to help develop them - £170 million – is never going to change anything significant, as frankly, it’s little more than a drop in the ocean. But what it does mean is opportunities are being created which can allow our sector to flourish. What it does mean, is that Government recognises that FE can help deliver economic prosperity in the UK. What it does mean, is that the academic snobbery of the past, when the traditional HE route was considered the premium product, is no longer the case.

This new pledge to technical, vocational training is not the spark that will set light to any kind of revolution in this type of learning. What it is though, is the catalyst which can help our sector develop a strong reputation for delivering great careers in an age where a University degree is diminishing in influence in a tough jobs market, and where employers are finding graduates ill equipped to move straight into the workplace.

Developing vocational skills is great for students, employers and the wider community

As Principal of two large FE colleges, our teams have already been examining how we can best deliver for our local, regional and national skills priorities. We’ve analysed the skills needs of business, and our Local Enterprise Partnership, and we are already working towards building strong partnerships with local employers. It’s these relationships which we need to see the whole FE sector continuing to build as we move forward, because it is this work which will ensure we are able to deliver relentlessly for our students, our businesses, our Government and our communities. And it is these relationships that will ensure the FE sector is taken seriously in the future. So long live the Institutes of Technology, and the grand opportunity they represent.


Friday, 13 January 2017

The glass is more than just half full in 2017

In January last year, I started this insight into my views with a posting titled ‘A new blog, for the New Year’. As we’re now knee deep in 2017, I’d like to begin this posting with the title ‘New opportunities for this New Year’.

As many of you will already be aware, I’m a person who’s glass is always half full. I believe that positivity in all we do helps to drive us forward, build aspiration and help us realise our goals. But I don’t think that I’m being unnecessarily optimistic when I say this year holds real promise for the FE sector at large, and also for East Kent College and Canterbury College.

But why this optimism, I hear you cry. After years of cuts as austerity budget after austerity budget have been levied upon the sector, it doesn’t necessarily seem rational to be so positive, surely? And yet I am, and this is why.

The FE sector is full of buoyancy. There’s little doubt that it’s a service built of passionate people, but just recently I’ve been seeing commitment, and drive within the sector, which are unparalleled. The manner in which so many within our sector leapt to its defence, in such a rational, analytical manner when we were attacked in a TES opinion piece for failing to help disadvantaged students, was truly heartening. And I’m seeing a greater drive to ensure no-one’s nicking our lunch, while as a sector we perform with greater professionalism than ever before. No-one could badge us as some kind of unloved Cinderella sector anymore.

I’m also seeing greater movements within our Government to help drive the skills agenda, and promote technical learning as a real option for our young people. There seems to be a greater commitment from our politicians to ensure that FE is no longer subject to the educational prejudices of the past; a realisation, if you will, that while the well-trod pathway through University is good, it simply isn’t the answer for everyone.

And of course, we’ve seen figures such as Sir Michael Wilshaw leaving office. Sir Michael never truly understood FE, and never seemed to care for it. His unrelenting attacks while in office were nothing but unhelpful, for a part of the educational framework which delivers so much, for so many students.

On a more local level, we’ve hit the ground running in 2017, working toward the proposed merger between East Kent College and Canterbury College. This will ensure that we are collectively delivering an immense range of opportunities for the 17,000 students who attend our colleges.

So set against that backdrop, why wouldn’t I be positive about what this year’s going to bring? We live in a land of opportunity in FE, and locally at our colleges. We live in a world where our passion, commitment and relentless drive to ensure the best outcome for our students, delivers us the opportunity to really change our communities for the better. And it is just this opportunity that I am seeing all around me in 2017. So happy New Year; I know it’s going to be a great one.