The Association of Colleges conference started with a bang in Birmingham today with a really thought-provoking speech from the Minister of State with responsibility for Further Education, Matthew Hancock MP.
The Minister was generous in his praise of the best of the sector and equally insistent on the need for standards to improve at the lower end, and my deputy Nick Isles @DPMKCollege, and I would heartily agree with that.
In the question and answer session after his speech, I had the opportunity to ask him about increasing curriculum flexibility for 14- to 16-year-olds. At the moment, we at Milton Keynes College have a great deal of scope to collaborate with employers in moulding what we teach at 16-19 to suit the needs of the individual and of the city’s employers. However, at 14-16, courses are constrained by the requirements of teaching core subjects to GCSE.
This situation reflects the tension between the two departments Matthew Hancock serves in: Education (DfE) and Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS). Civil servants in the latter are entirely business-focused while those in the former are naturally more concentrated on schooling and exam success.
We in the FE sector are wondering, now that students have to stay on in education or training until they are 17 (and soon to be 18), why do they all have to be funnelled down the academic examination route until 16.
Wouldn’t it be a more sensible approach to fit the courses to the young people (which we can do when they’re over 16) so that those more enthusiastic for and better suited to vocational education can start to develop their work readiness from an earlier age?
Surely it must make sense for these young people to have more of those vital employability skills at the core of the curriculum.
Now one doesn’t expect a minister standing on stage at a conference like ours to start making policy on the spot, and it would be quite alarming if he did! However, speaking to a representative of BIS later in the day it is clear that employability and skills development to support business growth is at the heart of their strategic intentions and I received the distinct impression that joining up pre-16, 16-18 and post-19 skills is something that department would be very interested in exploring.
It’s an idea we strongly believe in at Milton Keynes College and the type of programme which would obviously need something of a pilot scheme for a radical, vocational 14-19 programme to test its effectiveness and viability.
I’m putting my hand up now to volunteer our college for the job. I believe absolutely it could have a fundamental impact on the way we help teenagers prepare for a life in work and it would be good for UK plc.