As a general rule, if you hear the same piece of criticism or advice from three different independent sources in a short space of time, it may be a good idea to sit up and take notice. The last few weeks have seen at least three sources telling the FE sector essentially the same thing: there is a general disconnect between course provision and the needs of employers in the local economy. Clearly this is something that colleges can ill afford to ignore.
First there was the City & Guilds/Edge Foundation survey which highlighted the concerns of employers that young people are just not getting the right careers information to lead them in the right direction. Then there was the report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) which claimed that up to 50,000 16- to 18-year-olds are taking “dead-end” courses that don’t lead into work or further study. You can read our responses to those reports here and here. Now the annual Ofsted report, which was released on 11th December, has made essentially the same criticism: The FE and skills sector are just not meeting the needs of employers and local economies.
According to the report, there is “too much provision that is not responsive to local employment needs… This provision is therefore inappropriate for young people, regardless of the quality of teaching”. This is basically the same point that we made in our response to the IPPR’s concerns. The report also laments that there is “currently no structure, accountability measure or system of incentives to ensure that FE and skills provision is adapted to local economic and social needs”.
There can be no question that this is a major issue, and not one that is going to go away any time soon. However, acknowledging a problem is not the same as solving it and anyone in senior management being stung by these criticisms might be forgiven for thinking something like this: “Yes, I recognise that we need to make sure the people who come in though our doors go back out suitably equipped to meet the needs and demands of the local economy, but how on earth do we make sure this happens?”
Here’s a little analogy. Before a doctor can prescribe medication to their patient, what do they need? It goes without saying that they need to have had suitable medical training and that they need access to appropriate medication. Yet even these things are not enough without another crucial factor: knowledge of the patient.
Knowledge of the patient can be gained in one of two ways: firstly, by talking to the patient in order to gather information from them, and secondly, by consulting the patient’s notes in order to establish historical patterns that might give clues as to the patient’s present condition.
How does this analogy translate to senior management in colleges striving to address the concerns raised by Ofsted and the others? Well let’s assume that like the doctor who has the required medical knowledge and has access to appropriate medication, a college has the knowledge and the resources to train learners effectively. Is this all that is needed? No. Just as with the doctor, colleges also need to have both direct personal knowledge and objective information regarding those they serve, which in the case of colleges is employers and learners.
Direct personal knowledge can be gained by dialogue with employers to find out the needs of the local economy, and from conversations with learners to establish what might be appropriate careers advice for them. Yet this would be incomplete without objective facts as well. Just as the doctor needs to see the patient’s past history to establish if there are any patterns and trends, what every college needs, in addition to talking to employers and learners, is objective data about their local labour market.
Labour Market Information (LMI) is crucial in that it enables colleges to see the patterns and trends of the economy in which they exist, so that they can make both informed curriculum decisions, and give learners objective advice based on the realities of the economy they will end up working in. Armed with good local, objective information, colleges are not only able to direct their course provision towards the needs of the employers they serve, they are also better able to direct every learner that comes into the college to suitable and sustainable career opportunities once they have finished their course.
Direct personal knowledge has of course always been possible for colleges. What has not been possible, until relatively recently, is access to good, coherent, robust LMI that would inform a college of the needs of their local economy. For the last few years, EMSI have been researching and collecting just this sort of information and then using it to build tools that colleges can use to fill the objective data gap that has been fuelling the recent criticisms of the FE sector.
Analyst, our web-based LMI tool gives instant access to key local information on jobs and skills across industries and occupations, providing the most comprehensive and up-to-date labour market data available in the UK and so enabling colleges to make informed, clear and objective curriculum decisions that answer the recent criticisms levelled at the FE Sector.
Career Coach, another web-based tool, also uses LMI but this time to show learners how courses at their local college can lead them to sustainable careers that interest them.
We believe that Ofsted, like IPPR and City & Guilds/Edge Foundation all have a point, and one that colleges are fully aware they need to respond to. However, we also believe that many colleges would love to get their hands on something that will help them rise up to the challenge these criticisms pose. It may be that they have the skills, the resources and the direct personal knowledge of employers and learners all in place, but the one thing lacking to complete the diagnosis is access to clear, objective LMI. This is where we are convinced we can help. With our comprehensive LMI, together with our easy-to-use tools, we believe we have at least part of the solution to the problem which doesn’t show any sign of going away.