Future of FE must be an enterprising one

The news of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s proposals for reforming the qualification system has brought into sharp focus the extent to which education needs to change to equip the workforce of the future.

The Education Secretary is right to call for a curriculum that “prepares all children for success at 16 and beyond, by broadening what is taught in our schools and in improving how it is assessed”. Would industry see the O-level and CSE curriculum of the seventies as containing the breadth needed to support that ambition? The Gazelle Colleges Group asked that question at a House of Commons symposium with industry representatives last week.

The event, designed to help develop our vision for an “entrepreneurial college of the future” and based on our recent Enterprising Futures report, was hosted by Neil Carmichael MP of the Education Select Committee. Panellists included: Stephen Uden, head of citizenship at Microsoft; Penny Power, founder of Ecademy; James Groves, head of education, Policy Exchange; Stella Mbubaegbu CBE, principal, Highbury College Portsmouth; and David Wilson, deputy director of policy and strategy, enterprise directorate, BIS. The debate was chaired by Michael Hayman, co-founder of Seven Hills and StartUp Britain.

The overarching view? The current further education system as it is cannot meet the needs of a changing economy. Industry, however, is not universally in search of the creative, enterprising people that the Gazelle report suggests is the case.

The artisanal, networking and entrepreneurial worlds described in the report are growing in global employment influence, but the corporate world dominates, and the larger companies will continue, for a time at least, to recruit individuals with only the specialist skills required for corporate success. Colleges therefore need to create breadth but not at the expense of technical excellence.

Lara Morgan, founder of Company Shortcuts and Gazelle entrepreneur representative, suggested that there is a need for the education system to be more “uncomfortable”, pushing people outside their comfort zone. She said: “There is a missed opportunity. We need to encourage the willingness to be competitive, to want to win and to be proud of making money and building wealth and success. We need to teach bravery. We need to allow students to build their own self confidence”.

Stephen Uden from Microsoft confirmed that it is those who have the agility to adapt their skills that will be the employees that succeed and thrive.

Stella Mbubaegbu, CBE, principal and chief executive of Highbury College, Portsmouth, was more radical in her call for a “paradigm shift” in further education.

She said: “There is failure in the wider system and this is affecting our young people. We need learning that develops an entrepreneurial mindset through enterprising approaches within an entrepreneurial environment.

If we’re talking about successful outcomes for education and training, we would like government to recognise this, develop supportive policies, not just enterprise initiatives and come with us on the journey.”

If we are to advance an argument for recognisable entrepreneurial colleges in the UK we need a louder voice than just the Gazelle Principals Group.

In recruiting some outstanding entrepreneurs to the Gazelle movement we have begun to create a lobby for change that is respected and valued in the corporate environment.
We also need to advance the debate with the leaders of industry. The constant rejection of young people emerging from the education system on the basis of their lack of initiative, discipline, creativity and basic skills by employers can only be addressed if those employers work with us to define the experience needed to create that output.

There were no advocates at the symposium for an O-level curriculum or indeed for a traditional teaching paradigm that segregated students and measured success in qualification output. There was therefore a meeting of minds around the need for new qualifications and new learning models that could better address the changing needs of industry, and the changing expectations of young people in particular.
The Gazelle Colleges Group, representing 19 colleges at the event, resolved to increase dialogue with industry at every level. In the same way that we have brought entrepreneurs and education leaders together to champion entrepreneurship as a strategic driver for change, we need now to bring industry at its most senior level into a similar strategic debate.

Industry must be empowered by our colleges to engage proactively in learning design and curriculum delivery. It needs to become an advocate for a new type of college and part of its architecture.


Fintan Donohue, CEO of Gazelle and  principal of North Hertfordshire College.

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  1. Ian Williams

    As a secondary school teacher for the last 16 years the current furore over exam standards is like “putting lipstick on a pig!” The whole system needs reforming if we are to stand any chance of delivering both a competitive workforce and active & enterprising citizens.
    In my experience the problem with the current system can boiled down to three issues (i) we do not inspire a love of learning (ii) we continue to emphasise the retention of knowledge over the development of skills and (iii) we see academic studies as superior to vocational learning. What do I mean:
    (i) Schooling starts with a curriculum – a mass of stuff that must be learned by all students in distinct subjects squeezed into specific time slots delivered by ‘specialists’. Outside of education itself I am not aware of any institution/circumstances in which we think in these distinct boxes for prescribed periods of time until it is time to move onto another distinct area of knowledge for another allocated period of time! Why not start with the student and their inquiring mind and support learning from this perspective – there is nothing more exciting for a teacher (or productive for the student) than feeding a young person’s desire to learn BUT this only happens when the student can see how learning ‘stuff’ is going to benefit their quest for knowledge and understanding (see Littky).
    (ii) Education in the 21st century is still predicated on the superiority of mode 1 (knowledge based learning) over mode 2 (skills based learning). The whole system continues to promote and reward learning stuff over an ability to use intellectual and practical skills to effectively use knowledge. Just look at University Challenge – 90% of the questions demand that the ‘elite’ of our education system be able to recall knowledge. We could pit a group of 10 year olds with i-net phones against our countries ‘top minds’ and Google would give them a good run for their money! We need to emphasise the analytical, evaluative and creative elements in the human mind. Creative thinking is not just poorly promoted by schools but actively discouraged because it does not ‘fit’ with the ‘production line’ education system as it stands today (see Sir Ken Robinson).
    (iii) Policy-makers in govt/civil service/media & industry have risen to the top – attained success – through the education system that currently exists – it has put them where they are today and it is therefore very difficult for these people to accept that our economy & society requires an education system that is radically different. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his income is dependent on his not understanding it.” (Upton Sinclair) In Germany industrial apprenticeships are valued (socially and in pecuniary terms) as on a par with academic attainment. In the UK, whether it is a hang-over from our class based history, academic studies are deemed superior. The ‘professions’ in the UK do not include engineers and ‘dirty’ manufacturing careers. There are successful models out there – Big Picture Schools (USA), Finland & soviet industrial colleges (not unlike those promoted by Sir Kenneth Baker!) – that could offer us a pathway to the future but this would require the will to change a failed system rather than quibble over the shade of lip-gloss needed to make the pig more attractive!