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Lessons from Germany about the challenges of running a college - James Scott

18 May 2023

by James Scott, Principal of the Trafford College Group

In March of this year, we hosted a delegation of 13 senior leaders from FE and skills institutions from the Hesse region of Germany. Their visit to Trafford College included a knowledge exchange conference around the technical and vocational education system of the two respective countries, and had representation from Greater Manchester Colleges, the GM Chamber of Commerce, the GM Combined Authority and the Gatsby Foundation.

In many ways, the conference was incredibly timely, considering the “Mind the Skills Gap” campaign led by the Future Skills Coalition. In addition, our sector has recently been involved in fierce debate around the current government policy direction for technical education and the approach to rolling out the new “T Levels”. The growth in apprenticeships has been a key driver in this country – with much to commend it. Yet data still indicates that UK businesses invest significantly less into training than the EU average – and many of us feel the apprenticeship levy needs urgent reform to give employers much greater flexibility.

More locally, we are shortly expecting the outcomes from the Greater Manchester Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP), led by the GM Chamber of Commerce, which will form the basis of our new college Accountability Agreements. And the very day before our conference, the new GM “trailblazer” devolution agreement was signed in the presence of GM colleges; with part of the deal focused on new devolved oversight arrangements for post-16 technical education across the city region.

Given all these developments, our time with German colleagues was a great opportunity to hear about the current state of the German technical and vocational education system – which is often held up as the “gold standard” in this space, not least for the “dual vocational education” approach and the quality of apprenticeships. Also, given the new devolution deal and the aspiration in GM to establish a more integrated technical education system it seemed an opportune moment to find out what this looks like according to our German counterparts!

My immediate three reflections from the knowledge exchange were as follows: where Germany goes, we often try and follow (in education terms); that our own education system is, in many respects, held in high regard among German colleagues; and that the current issues and challenges we face in FE and skills here in the UK are almost a complete mirror image to those in Germany.

There is a huge caveat with what I’m about to say. You cannot understand a nation’s education system through one morning of knowledge exchange. So, some of my observations recognise that there is always a bigger context and certainly different perspectives. However, what struck me was the apparent simplicity of the post-16 landscape in Germany compared to our nation. Academic and general learning sits alongside vocational and technical education (rather than it being an “either / or”). Young people who are not yet ready to take the equivalent of our Level 3 undertake a programme of work readiness, unlike the myriad of complex options that exist here – and that will still probably exist following new reform.

That’s not to say the German system is without its challenges. One perspective provided on the day was that not enough young people choose to take advanced technical options – with more general subjects being the preferred route. Sounds familiar given how here, we are starting to see the roll-out of the new T Levels – excellent qualifications, but with a level of demand and difficulty that means the likely cohort are those who would normally take A Levels – and we know therefore that’s going to be a difficult issue to circumvent, given the kudos of A Levels with schools and parents.

Another key moment for me was understanding the different roles of employers and employer representative bodies. In Germany, apprenticeship programme delivery seems more clearly defined in respect of the roles of employers and providers. Alongside providing the job role, the employer delivers the work-based training aspect of the programme. The college or training provider delivers the day-release element (which also includes general education alongside the technical component). With two different organisations involved in the actual delivery of the programme, we wondered if this created some challenge, and the response was “it works”. Of course, here, we often have multiple partners involved in the delivery of apprenticeships (through subcontracting) – and some employers themselves have contracts for delivery. However, it was the apparent simplicity and clarity of the German approach that was so revealing. In addition, the role of Chambers of Commerce in Germany seems to be more active around delivery of training.

This sense of simplicity and streamlining was also very evident when we discussed our approach to staffing and the support needs of our students. In German vocational colleges, they do not have the same level of resource around student support for SEND – with teachers ensuring they differentiate their pedagogy and delivery to the needs of each individual student. There was immediately a resonance for me with the new national SEND Improvement Plan and the pressures on local authority areas around the High Needs budgets. In addition, most pastoral and social support is provided by their equivalent of local authority areas, when here many of us have taken on this responsibility for ourselves, given the reduction in local area resources and the increase in demand, not least for mental health support. Again, that’s not to say in Germany this is a non-issue. There are significant waiting lists there in many local areas for such support.

Indeed, there is much about our sector in the UK that our German counterparts admire. German colleagues are always keen to discuss the approach to quality in our education sector – as this is perceived as a real strength. Of course, to some extent, accountability drives quality and I get the impression that the equivalent levers of accountability and regulation are not quite the same in Germany. For example, once teachers have qualified in Germany, it seems there is not the same level of on-going scrutiny into performance that is so prevalent in our system given the high stakes involved through Ofsted and DfE accountability measures.

The investment here in college buildings and facilities is another aspect of our system that our colleagues in Germany seemed almost envious of. As a college principal, I cannot say that the government has been short on providing capital investment – recently there seems to have been a plethora of new opportunities for us, whether that be through the FE Capital Transformation Fund, the Post-16 Capacity Fund, T Level Capital funding, OFS Capital funding, ONS Capital funding – the list goes on, and it has been hugely welcomed. Now revenue, well that’s a different matter (and I would reference again – “Mind the Skills Gap”!)

Yet, ultimately, despite the differences in our respective systems and approaches, what fascinated me most of all was the similarity in current issues and challenges we face. In advance of the conference, our German colleagues sent us a list of items for debate. This list pointed to labour market shortages, the role and importance of region in the provision of education and training, cooperation between colleges and partners in industry and business, collaboration vs competition between colleges and with other providers, college finance, capital investment, college mergers, quality assurance, student support and students from refugee backgrounds. Sound familiar? As a German colleague remarked to me – “these are not UK or German issues – they are European issues”. Perhaps they are even global ones.

I am sure our German colleagues took as much from the conference as we did from them. Indeed, I am told they have already developed an action plan on the basis of what they have heard. There’s efficiency for you!

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.