Colleges won’t see the wood for the trees without big data

2 Nov 2019, 5:00

With Ofsted focusing on curriculum intent, implementation and impact, colleges must be able to show they are truly responsive to local needs, says John Gray

Ofsted’s education inspection framework sets out three basic criteria by which a college’s curriculum will be assessed: intent, implementation and impact. Of these, intent is critical because it determines everything else. Get it wrong and everything else will be too.

Thankfully, the sector doesn’t need to guess at where its focus should be. Ofsted’s documentation is explicit that a “coherently planned and sequenced” curriculum should have as its intent “the needs of learners, employers, and the local, regional and national economy, as necessary.”

What Ofsted is looking for is nothing less than a vocational and technical sector producing curricula that give learners the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life, and which are highly responsive to the needs of employers at a local level.

It might be an obvious point, but it is not possible to achieve this without first getting a really good understanding of local employers’ needs. Nor is this something that can be done by relying on employer engagement. There are simply too many businesses in a college’s region; to find out their skills needs would be a Sisyphean task. Not that employer engagement is redundant, of course, but the most effective way to identify local skills needs to feed into curriculum planning is by combining it with detailed Labour Market Insight (LMI).

LMI use in colleges is sporadic. For some colleges it is a tick-box exercise to placate Ofsted, while others clearly see the huge potential it gives them, very often using it predominantly to look for the big, profitable emerging opportunities. Looking at the forest is good, but might there be opportunities to use the data to look a bit more closely at the trees as well?

Generic planning leaves students’ future progress to pot luck

The answer is yes, and a good example of this is around the expansion of digital skills. Over the past year, there have been about 280,000 job postings for programming and software development professionals in Britain. Using LMI, we can go deeper to identify the top skills employers want in these roles. In fact, 65,000 required C Sharp programming skills, while 43,000 asked for Amazon Web Services knowledge.

Generic planning for an IT curriculum leaves students’ future progress to pot luck, but we can zoom in further still. When we look at the more local level data, we find that the situation turns out to be more nuanced.Comparing four regions’ job postings over the past 12 months, big differences emerge. For example, of nearly 3,000 unique job postings in Outer London-South, Agile Software Development featured 737 times. It didn’t feature at all In Coventry, Derby and Sheffield. Server management skills were among the top four required skills in Coventry and Outer London-South, but didn’t feature in Derby or Sheffield.

This shows the importance of not just looking at the forest (more digital skills needed), nor even getting a little closer to look at the trees (hard skills demand across the nation). Rather, it illustrates the need to look much closer still, at the granular detail of the wood, to see which digital skills are in demand in each region. This is where the information that will inform effective curriculum planning and course design is to be found, with the potential to positively impact college performance and the post-qualification destinations of learners.

Of course there are limitations to what the data can tell us, and it certainly isn’t the definitive answer to Ofsted’s curriculum intent question. Yet, neither can “doing it for Ofsted” be the entire purpose. If the sector is to rise to the challenge of giving learners the skills local employers need, LMI is a crucial element.

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