Amanda Spielman cited Harlow College as having particularly good curriculum design at the AoC conference in the autumn – but what has it done that so impressed Ofsted? Its principal Karen Spencer explains

During 2017, Harlow College took part in an Ofsted survey visit, looking at the design of level two study programmes. The visit felt very different from an inspection: it was more of a professional conversation asking us to identify good practice, giving greater time, without judgements, for discussion.

We told Ofsted how we’d redesigned our level two engineering curriculum in consultation with local employers, and how we were using the same process for our new centre planned at Stansted Airport. They seemed impressed with our approach, which could be replicated by any college, whatever their local employer landscape, so we are happy to share it here.

Engage effectively with employers

We were aware that our students were arriving with some gaps, so we invited 30 local employers to join a forum to learn what they needed from them. We heard all of their complaints – it was useful therapy for them, and while it was hard for us to hear, the first part of any process is acknowledging the issue.

Employers were very keen to be involved and commit to placements, professional input and guaranteed job interviews

The employers made several requests, including more training in hand skills and five-days-a-week provision, which unsurprisingly caused sharp intakes of breath. Nevertheless, we set about identifying practical solutions; it was a genuine two-way process, as employers supported us.

Tailor provision to employer need

We compacted our engineering study programme so students attended five days each week until Christmas. Then they begin two blocks of six-week work placements.

The final part of the course is taken up with completing portfolios, employability skills training, interview techniques, and how to search for vacancies. Employers sponsor the programme, providing professional input to curriculum design, offering extended work placements and guaranteeing interviews for jobs (not a guaranteed job). We cobrand and badge the programmes as “pre-apprenticeships”.

Last year 94 per cent of young people from our programme progressed directly into an apprenticeship with a local employer. Our engineering apprenticeships have increased by 13 per cent and the numbers wanting to join the study programme this year have increased by 56 per cent.

Develop and maintain relationships

The consultation created goodwill. We found employers were very keen to be involved and commit to placements, professional input and guaranteed job interviews. In fact, since we redesigned our curriculum, we’ve even had employers fighting over our students to employ them as apprentices.

Ongoing relationship management is critical. We therefore decided to invest in business development expertise, someone who understands the curriculum and is an engineer by trade.

Invest in facilities tailored to your area

We wanted to make our students more work-ready, not only their hand skills but also by familiarising them with the kind of advanced machinery they would use in the workplace.

That’s why we built the Harlow Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Centre with co-investment from the College, SELEP and Essex county council. Our state-of-the-art facilities allow students to design, rapidly prototype, manufacture and test with the latest CNC technology. We complement this with a small-scale R&D and production facility for employers, where they can batch-manufacture components.

This is provided at a competitive price on the understanding that students are involved in the process. For example, we worked with a lawnmower company to produce components that they would otherwise send to China for production. Our students have gained a real insight into the design and production process, and assisted in the development of a real product.

We think we were used as an example of good practice for two main reasons: our proactive work with employers and our use of the flexibilities of the study programme. We have dared to think differently and innovate – something that’s a challenge when there’s so much change already in the sector.

Karen Spencer is principal of Harlow College