The first college incorporated in years has been told to merge to survive. This is the wrong decision, according to its erstwhile principal Neil Bates.
The government continues with its much-needed reforms of technical education and skills at pace. In recent weeks, we have had the announcement of the 16 successful stage one bidders for the £140 million Institutes of Technology and the 52 T-level early adopters, a list which includes a surprisingly large number of schools, sixth forms and faith schools alongside further education colleges. The reforms are driving meaningful structural changes to the educational landscape.
The government wants a world-class education and skills system, but the evidence suggests that transforming technical education is going to be a long slog, not least because our regulatory and compliance system promotes sameness and suffocates innovation.
The recent difficulties at Prospects College of Advanced Technology (PROCAT), which I led for 30 years until I retired in 2017, are a prime example of how hard it is to change the system.
Born out of the 1964 Industrial Training Act, the original college was one of 150 group training associations owned and run by employers. Sadly, today only around 30 GTAs survive as independent institutions. In 2014, in a landmark development, PROCAT incorporated and became the first new FE college in England since the 1992 Act. That tells you something about the rigidity of our skills system.
PROCAT was established as a new model within the sector. A college of advanced technology specialising in STEM subjects, it was governed in partnership with employers, equipped with the latest technology including digital technology, simulators and robots, and had three times more apprentices than full time students and a strong commercial income.
There to meet the local, regional and national needs of key sectors such as advanced manufacturing, defence, aviation and rail, the college helped shape the template for the new Institutes of Technology.
When I retired last year, PROCAT was the largest rail engineering apprenticeship provider in the UK. It had over 1,000 apprentices, the majority aged 16 to 19 and studying at level three or higher. We had managed to transform the curriculum from mainly level one and two provision, to having three quarters of provision at levels three to six, including new degree apprenticeships.
PROCAT is a victim of the very change it sought to promote
Hundreds of young people started their careers on higher-level STEM apprenticeships at global companies such as Atkins, Thales and Honeywell. Anyone visiting the college could not help but be impressed by the environment, which replicated a modern workplace.
The fact that the FE commissioner has concluded that the college is too small to survive independently, and so is now being driven into merger with South Essex College of Further and Higher Education, illustrates all too clearly the fault lines which remain in our skills system. It also has serious implications for the new institutes of technology, whose mission and specification are remarkably like PROCAT’s.
In many respects, PROCAT is a victim of the very change it sought to promote. The imposition of a badly thought-out levy on large employers has hugely disrupted apprenticeship recruitment. Pressure to move to new apprenticeship frameworks by slashing funding for the old standards has created change overload on an already stretched workforce. Raising the bar on entry to level three (A-level equivalent) study programmes exposed the reality in schools that they are largely ignoring the Baker Clause, a legal entitlement.
On top of this external turbulence is the almost impossible task of recruiting and properly remunerating expert technical teachers in what the FE commissioner calls “a vibrant south-east employment market” and you have the perfect storm.
If the technical education reforms are going to be a success, we need many more colleges like PROCAT – not fewer. There is no reason why a specialist college with a turnover of circa £10 million cannot survive and thrive.
What is needed is policy stability, modest amounts of capital investment to keep pace with changes to technology and sufficient funding to allow for this.