Ofsted director of FE and skills Matthew Coffey told the Education Select Committee last week how colleges needed to do more to engage with local enterprise partnerships. His comments reaffirmed the overall message of the education watchdog’s annual report last year, but Phil Hatton asks whether such college criticism is justified.

Strangely, if you take a quick look through the information available online about local enterprise partnerships (Leps), there is no mention of the role of colleges or providers.

As usual, it is all about employers.

When inspection by the Further Education Funding Council started 20 years ago, one of the cross-college themes specifically inspected and graded was Range and Responsiveness.

The college where I worked at the time did particularly well in liaising with local and national industry to meet their needs (including training for multinational car companies and many small businesses) as well as reaching people who had previously not been engaged in education and training.

One of the ways in which the latter was achieved was by being the first college to effectively use postcode analysis to see where we did not have learners, and then knocking on doors to find out what people wanted and what we were not doing.

Giving colleges autonomy should not mean that they suddenly have a duty to spend their ever-diminishing funding on projects for which they are not adequately funded

The college received a grade one for the area and we were all proud of our role in improving the lives and employment prospects of local people.

At that time, Education Business Partnerships often instigated some really interesting ideas that made a difference locally, such as giving school pupils real work experience in industry rather than the easy option of a placement in a retail store that predominates now.

The whole ethos and mission of colleges, and the majority of providers, is to spend their funding for the benefit of their students and the needs of their local community.

That is the main basis of the funding formulae that are being continually squeezed.

Leps replaced the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) two years ago, which in turn had replaced Government Offices.

Are Leps having an impact, or are they following in the footsteps of RDAs, which were continually hyped as the next big thing in shaping changes in the economy?

Giving colleges autonomy should not mean that they suddenly have a duty to spend their ever-diminishing funding on projects for which they are not adequately funded.

The key focus of the current Common Inspection Framework is on delivering high quality teaching and learning.

The wording that refers to the inspection judgement for a college or provider about the unmet needs of industry are how the leaders of a college, ‘successfully plan, establish and manage the curriculum and learning programmes to meet the needs and interests of learners, employers and the local and national community’.

Colleges and providers do work closely with local employers and many do so on a national basis. Where work is new this is often on a full-cost basis which is not always adequately captured during inspection. Inspection covers government-funded provision.

As for getting jobs for youngsters who are not in education, employment or training (Neet), and the inference that the high numbers are partially the fault of college, you should take a look at some outstanding school reports where there will be little or no mention of impartial advice and guidance that includes real vocational training such as apprenticeships (and numbers going onto them at 16 and 17 continue to fall), but their guidance does cover the stuff that can be delivered that has little relevance to industry.

If we really want to reduce those who are Neet, take the example of the flagship traineeships which few seem interested in.

With my knowledge of young people and work-based learning, gleaned from surveys that covered some very successful Young Apprenticeship and school links programmes between schools, colleges and training providers, the most suitable age group would have been 14 and 16 rather than waiting for their disaffection with traditional schooling to increase as you wait for them to reach 16+.

The words stable, door and bolted come to mind. All this talk of Leps identifying unmet skills shortages is a little like the Somerset Levels where some investment in dredging just may have had a positive impact in preventing flooding.

Phil Hatton is a former HMI with 20 years’ experience. He now works at the Learning Improvement Service — www.learningimprovementservice.co.uk — as an adviser

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