In August last year Basildon-based Prospects Learning Foundation (PLF) underwent incorporation to become Prospects College of Advanced Technology —the first new FE college in more than 20 years. Neil Bates assesses the move, and the sector, 12 months on.

I have worked for PLF for almost my entire professional life. It has been my devotion; a labour of love. On occasions, I admit, the source of considerable misery and frustration.

It took the proverbial sweat, blood and tears to position Prospects as one of the most successful independent learning providers in England.

We built up with a well-intentioned bunch of trustees, terrific staff, a rich history formed around the group of training associations that were the product of the 1964 Industrial Training Act and £50m of investment in five wonderful skills campuses.

Why on earth would we want to become an FE college – the first to be established since the Further and Higher Education Act 1992? Were we out of our mind?!

Well, maybe. But let me tell you why I think it was the most important decision the PLF Board ever made in the 44 years since the company was established.

The bureaucracy is insane but we’re better governed, a lot more secure, and we are growing fast

Our mission has always been about skills. In the sectors we operate in — engineering and construction — it is often the supply of skilled people that determines the future of those businesses.

So I have always believed in our very own version of the ‘dual mandate’, providing opportunities for young people, many of whom are trying to escape inherited poverty and disadvantage, and providing a pipeline of skilled people to help businesses compete in an increasingly global marketplace.

The trouble is that our job, and everyone else’s in the FE sector I suspect, has been made a whole lot harder by the absence of any coherent national strategy for education and skills.

We have allowed a hierarchy to cling on between academic and vocational education. The very word vocational has come to imply the opposite of ‘academic’ when in fact the very best technical professional education needs large doses of both.

So back to the question, were we out of our minds? Well maybe not although time will tell. We hope that our incorporation will signal the start of a new vision for FE and skills, one which is better aligned with the needs of business and the economy.

It will be one that gives proper status and recognition to professional technical education; that puts employers as well as learners at the heart of the system — and, yes, that recognises that the minimum standard for an apprenticeship must be level three and more often than not at level four or five.

In Northern Ireland, it is government policy to offer apprenticeships to level eight. What on earth are we doing using up scarce public money training 25-year-old supermarket workers and in the process subsidising major retailers’ continuing professional development budget?

If you are thinking about incorporation, here is our experience 12 months after we opened. Only do it if you think it will enable you to better fulfil your mission. The 1992 Act is not fit for purpose. It is designed to convert local authority colleges not launch new ones. There is a fundamental problem too with the funding system. It is simply not geared up to support new colleges or even to promote growth. The bureaucracy is insane but we’re better governed, a lot more secure, and we are growing fast. Advanced apprenticeships and Higher Education student numbers have increased by 48 per cent since incorporation.

The key to our survival and future success? We have an absolute clarity of mission. We are specialist. Employers are partners not just customers — they have to pay their fair share but they play a leading role in governance and curriculum design. That ensures value for money. We have a brilliant board of governors.

We are all passionate about skills and we are closely aligned with government policy. That will see us through and you never know, we might get the education and skills system that young people deserve and UK Plc so urgently needs.