FE White Paper: Why we need to trust, and be trusted

After the Skills for Jobs White Paper was published by the Government, Principal and Chief Executive of Nelson and Colne College Group, Amanda Melton CBE, has written a column offering her thoughts on what it means for colleges and the Further Education sector.

The Skills for Jobs White Paper was a significant event for FE colleges, marking the first long-term ambitious and wide-reaching policy framework to guide FE and skills for many years. It clearly addresses the importance of systemic employer involvement and local and regional economic difference, and invites a more mature conversation between all stakeholders sharing a vision for positive change.

I feel optimistic that it provides a trajectory affirming the role and purpose of FE colleges for people, businesses and communities everywhere. For the first time in many years, skills and colleges are acknowledged and promoted as playing a central role in the much needed “levelling up” agenda. It shows me that FE colleges are recognised in Whitehall for what they currently achieve, and, more significantly, for the untapped potential they provide.

Any significant policy development generates opportunities and challenges, and this will be no different. The nuts and bolts of delivery remain important to work through, and there is consultation on the way for several key elements, but I acknowledge that the existing systems need work, and feel encouraged that the changes ahead will build on strengths and share the very best practices.

As an FE college leader, I see this as an opportunity to lead the change, as an equal partner with government and business. I have heard colleagues speak eloquently on this topic through the detailed work of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, and I’m so pleased to see much alignment to that report with this publication.  

FE White Paper: Delivering the College of the Future vision

For me, an important test is assessing the potential of this White Paper to deliver the vision of the college of the future. Does it deliver lifelong learning? Will it deliver a more coherent, well-invested education and skills system? Will it deliver freedom to co-design programmes with businesses to increase productivity and create sustainable jobs? Will it anchor colleges in towns everywhere, developing healthy, connected and cohesive communities? 

Adult learning is, for me, the greatest priority. Working lives are getting longer, and job roles and skills are changing, and we all need to continually develop our skills with universal access to the very best information and training. It can’t just be that your success in late school and the following few years guide your path, leaving it to serendipity to determine what happens next. A Lifelong Loan Entitlement will create a statutory right to lifelong learning, supporting those furthest from education and training, as well as the many adults making a career change throughout life.

To support productivity, the commission’s call for the introduction of employer hubs is reflected in the new measure to develop college business centres that will drive innovation through direct alignment of training to skills need. The proposed local skills plans – if done well through genuine collaboration – will be a vehicle for boosting all that is already good in employer/college partnerships.

The emphasis on place-making through the local skills improvement plans exploits the underplayed potential of the network of colleges in every part of the nation. My sincere hope is that this will drive greater collaboration rather than competition, as leaders collectively consider the skills needs of individuals and employers in each part of the country over institutional market share. The signpost to longer-term funding aligned to the outcomes for people and businesses in an area will hopefully give colleges greater confidence to collaborate rather than compete, with less focus on institutional survival and more on purpose. 

As we “build back better” there are pointers to greater capital investment throughout the White Paper. That investment is much needed and should support the remedial work required after many years of neglect. But it should also avoid unnecessary duplication. Every FE college should offer an appealing experience to students that inspires technical and vocational learning, as well as the essential learning building blocks to improve the prospects of young people and adults. That means excellent resources, buildings and highly skilled, well-paid staff everywhere. But we should be clear about the uniqueness of colleges in terms of the expertise at higher levels, and the facilities and staff that underpin a world-class experience.

A college sector that is trusted – and trusts

The measures announced build on previous commitments and put meat on the bones of what it means for colleges to support with levelling up. Policy change is required, but so too is a culture shift. We have a long way to go to become an education and skills sector that is trusted and trusts. A closer proactive relationship with local and national partners will help us contribute to future changes, drawing upon the rich experiences we have of transforming skills for people and businesses. 

There is work to do over the coming months and years, but this is a significant first step for skills and colleges. I look forward to this conversation across the sector and in government shaping the college of the future. If we get this right, it will transform the capability and capacity of English colleges to deliver for the nation.