Further Education colleges must take a more proactive role in helping shape the skills agenda and economic policy at regional and national levels.
FE has a key role to play; for those of us working closely with our business community and strategic partners there is a responsibility to share our knowledge, represent our customers and help drive policy for the benefit of the economy.
I am delighted that the LEP’s North East Regional Economic Plan places a real emphasis on the vital importance of skills and learning. And, following my recent appointment to the North East LEP Business Growth Board, I fully intend to strengthen our contribution to the skills debate in our region.
It is not acceptable for colleges or indeed any training provider to sit back with a passive attitude simply focussing on delivering the standard curriculum, while churning out qualifications; this will not cut it.
In the past some of this behaviour was driven by the focus of past governments on targets, usually NVQ attainment levels; national policy inadvertently encouraged quantity over quality and often without too much regard to local needs.
Here at Gateshead College, we recognised several years ago that colleges must be more in tune with their local markets and be better aligned with regional economic policies while also being mindful of the national landscape.
We enjoy a close, proactive relationship with the regional LEP and have actively contributed to the skills debate and helped inform and shape policy in this important area. This ongoing and genuine engagement means we’re fully in step with priorities and ambitions for the region.
We’re all striving to get more of our young people into higher education or employment, and better jobs that demand greater technical skills.
We recognise that the growth in demand from employers will be at higher qualification levels as modernisation of production reduces the need for lower level skills. Employers are also demanding greater flexibility and for a complete re-think in the shape of qualifications and the way we all deliver training.
We are responding and taking a lead. One example of this, involves Gateshead College, Northumbria University and the LEP, working with a powerful consortium of regional and national architects, designers, builders, construction companies and engineering specialists to establish a new way of recruiting and training people for the sector. This PlanBEE project, led by Ryder Architecture, was prompted by a belief that the current system is broken; that standard curriculums are too restrictive and traditional qualifications are no longer fit for purpose. By listening to these employers, the college designed a clear career pathway that is both flexible and practical for new employees. This may become a model of best practice.
The aims of Gateshead College are perfectly aligned with those of the LEP and the Government’s proposed Industrial Strategy. We’re committed to working closely with business, while all the while inspiring our young people to get better jobs.
Skills minister Robert Halfon has recently acknowledged that Gateshead College is among a handful of colleges around the country that is properly engaging with local employers. This was something that Ofsted inspectors cited when awarding us outstanding status in 2015.
We recognise it’s a team effort to get regional economies like the North East motoring again. The regional Strategic Economic Plan shows some real progress in recent years. Much of this is down to strong partnerships between business, education and other stakeholders.
It has long been my belief that the earlier we engage with young people, through schools and their parents, the more likely they will be aware of the well-paid career pathways that technical, vocational apprenticeships will provide and we must make sure this happens.
It’s heartening to see that the gap between the qualification levels of our workforce and with the national average is closing and I am determined that Gateshead College will continue to help drive these regional improvements.
My vision is to see more FE colleges at the centre of regional and national economic policy – as contributors and agents of delivery – and that people acknowledge its potential to help drive change and future prosperity and here at Gateshead College we are looking forward to taking a proactive, purposeful role in this regard.
By Judith Doyle
Principal and CEO of Gateshead College