Could a revolution in the promotion of FE be brewing? Graham Morley looks at how colleges could learn a lager lesson or two.

Anyone who visited the Skills Show 2012 at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre in November could not help but be impressed by the spectacle of thousands of young people ‘having-a-go,’ they also competed in skills competitions or received truly impartial information, advice and guidance.

The show played host to businesses, Sector Skills Councils, awarding bodies and training providers and colleges standing side-by-side with the sole intention of demonstrating how fruitful and rewarding a skills-based career could be.

I wonder though, just how many of the meandering crowds noticed the seismic shift that has quietly taken place in colleges in the East and West Midlands.

The collaborative work of colleges reminded me of a conversation I had at a business event earlier in the year.

I was placed at a table next to a gentleman who had been a senior sales executive in the brewing industry.

During the conversation he commented that he wished many sectors would learn the lesson provided by the brewing industry in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The lesson was simple — what they wanted to do at that time was to change men’s drinking habits to lager from the then more usual beer.

The key players in the lager industry agreed that while they would compete on price and qualitative attributes they would not criticise each other and would collectively promote the benefits of lager over beer.

The result is plain to see — lager outsells beer. Many thousands visiting the Skills Show noticed and engaged with the Further Education Feature area where 12 colleges came together with just one intention.

This was not to compete with each other, but to collectively promote the value of FE to visitors and to help them make the right career choice.

A single brochure was produced, three full days of showcasing organised without a single item of college branding and activity stands agreed and allocated.

All of this was designed to demonstrate how good colleges are at meeting learner needs to ensure individuals who come to us have the best possible support in achieving their ambitions.

The original 12 will be at the next Skills Show when more colleges join our quest to promote the value of FE colleges to the communities we serve.

A key element in excellence in competition is to surround yourself with talented individuals”

But the story doesn’t end there. Now college principals and marketing teams have seen the benefits of this approach, they are starting to explore further collaborative opportunities that promote the value of colleges in a single collective voice.

The timing of this change in approach could not be better in some ways.

The introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) over the past couple of years requires colleges to collectively meet the emerging skills agendas.

It is unreasonable to expect LEPs to consult with individual colleges to identify and meet the skills needs of the area. They need a single point of contact they can turn to for accurate and timely data to inform their decision-making and equally to seek support for delivery against their identified skills needs.

If the FE sector does not provide this unified service I fear the calls for skills budgets to be routed though the LEPs will gain momentum.

If the LEPs perceive a void in the provision of skills training they will look to fill it through commissioning.

Fortunately, the approach of the 12 colleges to the Skills Show has proved beyond doubt that we can work effectively as a whole and in the Midlands the momentum continues as we work together to support the work of the local LEPs.

Of course, competition is not a bad thing, but a key element in excellence in competition is to surround yourself with talented individuals or teams that stretch, challenge and test your abilities. FE is no different.

By working together colleges can raise the bar, respond effectively to the nation’s skills needs, but most importantly we can enable our young, our unemployed, our businesses, to make informed choices about their future.

Graham Morley, principal of South Staffordshire College

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