Ambitious independent provider plans raise prospect of new college

Ambitious plans to become an incorporated FE college and develop new sites across the country have been revealed by Essex-based charity Prospects Learning Foundation.

The independent learning provider (ILP), which has a current Skills Funding Agency allocation of £2.6m and already brands itself as Prospects College, has launched a consultation on plans to get FE college status.

Chief executive Neil Bates told FE Week he hoped the move would unlock government money and allow it set up new bases — potentially competing with existing colleges.

He said: “We are looking for FE college status to support very specialist, sector-focused provision, primarily apprenticeships and workforce development, where employers play a central part in the running of the facility and influence both the curriculum and the quality of what is delivered to make sure it meets the needs of their industry.”

Mr Bates added: “Our ambitions beyond Essex and beyond what we have done here is to try to replicate this model across the country because in many locations there are big gaps where there is not this kind of technical vocational provision.

“Our belief as a company is that as the government tries to rebalance the economy there is going to be a problem in terms of there not being the infrastructure through facilities like this to meet the demand.”

It could be the first new FE college in more than 20 years, but comes just weeks after the government separately unveiled proposals for a new FE college to train engineers for HS2.

And it appears the government has amended its position on who could run the HS2 college, having previously said it was expected to be a wholly new institution — not an existing ILP.

Mr Bates said it was “too early” to speculate about who would run the new HS2 college, as unveiled by the Department for Transport (DfT) and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), but said it would make sense for Prospects, which has an Education Funding Agency contract worth £715k, to be involved.

He said he would be “very keen” to talk to Ministers about running the college with his charity, which has around 250 staff, 2,000 students and a turnover of £11m last year, specialising in training engineers for the rail and aviation industry across some of its five bases. And his proposals already include plans for a rail academy.

“As I understand it, what the government announced in terms of HS2 is that there is going to be a specialist FE college in order to support the skills needs for the development,” said Mr Bates.

He added: “We believe that what we are proposing in terms of the new FE college is compatible with the new college for HS2.”

Prospects’ announcement, predicted by FE Week last year, also comes after it was rated good in its first Ofsted inspection.

The education watchdog praised growing numbers of successful apprentices and “outstanding visionary leadership”.

Colleges were incorporated in April 1993 primarily to remove funding from local government and keep down council tax bills while refocusing public-funded education on employer needs.

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesperson said Prospects could not be ruled out as the HS2 college provider.

He added: “We support the establishment of new colleges to allow new entrants who offer greater choice and diversity, and drive up quality, customer focus and responsiveness.”

Visit www.prospectsconsultation.com to take part in the consultation, which ends on February 17.

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Q&A with Neil Bates

Q: Who benefits from your approach of tailoring training to the needs of a geographic area?

A: Our plan has been to develop technical vocational centres in key sectors which are linked to the needs of the economy. So, this centre is based in Basildon, in the heart of the Thames gateway, 16 per cent of the workforce locally work in engineering and this is about Prospects being responsive to the needs of local businesses.

Meeting the needs of local business creates sustainable employment for young people as well, so it’s a win-win-win. It is a win for businesses because they get the people they need, it is a win for young people because they get sustainable employment and it is a win for us because we are meeting the demands of the sector.

That is how we have been able to grow our provision significantly in such a short period of time, because we have targeted sectors where there is a very specialist need. Rail is a very good example of that, as is aviation.

Q: Were you expecting the HS2 college announcement at this time?

A: No, but we are perfectly content that, having had discussions with BIS about us becoming the first newly-incorporated FE college since 1992 that quite clearly others will follow.

We are not too worried about the fact that we are not the first to be announced, because we envisage that over time there will be a number of these new specialist FE colleges. We think that is essential in order for the UK to compete on skills internationally.

Q: What do you say in response to concerns that the capacity of existing FE colleges to train people for HS2 has not been explored?

A: I have a mixed view of this. I think that FE colleges will certainly be given the opportunity to become involved in the new college, but equally I think there is opportunity for new types of organisation to be involved in the delivery of skills.

The point about there already being provision out there is not really supported by facts, because the facts are that the UK languishes at the bottom of the OECD league tables for skills, particularly in the engineering and construction sectors, and there is quite clearly not enough high level provision to support the needs of businesses and the community.

Something has to be done and that might well involve investment in existing FE infrastructure but our belief is that there is also a need to produce new players in the market and to get employers much more closely involved in the development of skills.

Q: Is the potential for capital funding the main benefit of incorporation for Prospects?

A: The potential access to capital funding is one of the benefits. One of the other benefits is we can gain access to the full value of the funding for delivery rather than having to go through a third party. They are not benefits because we are a private organisation, we are a registered charity. What they will enable us to do is to create much better facilities for learners, and more opportunities for learners because we will have the resources to do that. That is attracting us to incorporation.

The discussion about incorporation started with senior colleagues in BIS and when they approached us regarding this , our first reaction was ‘if you are asking if we would be interested in being a general FE college, then the answer would be no’.

What we are interested in is Government recognising new models of delivery within apprenticeships and skills and I think there is a real place and need for specialist, technical, small colleges that are heavily responsive to the needs of employers.

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Editorial : Brave new College

It’s hard to comprehend how there’s been no new college in more than 20 years — no incorporation since 1993.

We’ve seen new colleges born of mergers, for sure, but behind them there will have been market forces at play somehow, whether we like it or not.

It’s therefore almost unbelievable that such market forces — in the space of two decades — would not have been best served on at least one occasion by a wholly new college.

So if a revisit to incorporation will benefit learners then it is to be welcomed and Neil Bates’ ambitious plans deserve a fair hearing.

And ambitious they certainly do sound.

New Prospect sites could be on the horizon and, apparently coincidentally, there’s also the possibility of the HS2 college contract.

The confidence underpinning the plans is uplifting, but fortune does not always favour the brave — and neither, arguably, do market forces.

So while Mr Bates’ incorporation hopes sound positive, he should also be careful what, or how much, he wishes for.

Chris Henwood