Without question, further education (FE) is a central pillar of our education system, providing 2.2 million people with the training and skills required to thrive in the workplace, while also supporting employers and driving a significant portion of the country’s economy. As we look to the future and the Covid-19 recovery, FE is set to become a real driving force in not only supporting newly unemployed people get back into work, but also in re-energising the country’s fiscal health.
Throughout the Coronavirus lockdown, FE has played a crucial role in ensuring essential services can be maintained and communities kept safe. But, as we adjust to what will inevitably be a new education and employment landscape, how does the sector need to adapt in order to meet the demands of this “new normal”?
Over the past few months, we have seen first-hand, the value of fully integrated digital infrastructures in education institutions. Historically, FE has not adopted much online learning, with the exception of a few national providers, but during lockdown many colleges have continued their theoretical and practical classes remotely. The new post-pandemic environment and key lessons learnt from lockdown are already encouraging a re-evaluation of this approach with a survey from the Association of Colleges finding that most teachers were confident in delivering remote learning and 69 per cent of colleges were still able to provide opportunities to collaborate with peers online. With 95 per cent of colleges having plans in place to enrol students online there will hopefully be a more comprehensive online experience in the future, particularly as demand for retraining increases and the sector risks not being able to meet higher enrolment numbers through face-to-face provision.
Avoiding ‘one size fits all’
As the UK prepares to mitigate the effects of a downturned economy, it will be essential to the recovery that FE helps retrain and upskill unemployed people with the knowledge and skills needed for the Government’s growth sectors. These have been earmarked as green manufacturing, transport infrastructure, construction and digital, and while these may be national priorities, it is also important to align FE with the opportunities that provide a clear route to employment.
To do this we need a localised approach that is embedded withing regional communities and calls for greater collaboration amongst colleges and employers. According to Ian Pretty, Chief Executive of Collab Group, this will allow FE to work to an economy of scale but also reduce government intervention which can, at times, counter the priorities of local business and communities and stifle growth.
This strategy, of aligning FE with regional priorities and adopting a more agile approach has already been rolled out in the West Midlands with great success, providing a blueprint for other parts of the country. Before Covid-19, the Combined Authority’s ability to be more responsive to the needs of employers, and supportive of the training and skills needed for the community, effectively drove down unemployment at a considerably faster rate than the national average and it is this same flexible and localised mindset that is set to put them quickly back on course during the recovery.
If the Covid-19 response has taught us anything, it is the extent of our resilience and willingness to adapt when the importance and benefits are clear. The recovery effort will be a long-game but by creating a new, more dynamic framework for the sector that not only provides greater access to training, but also builds strong partnerships with employers, colleges and providers, FE can be trusted to provide the skills and retraining required to address the social and economic priorities across the country and lay the foundations for long-term opportunities and success.