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Flexibility in qualification design will meet skills needs – Gerry McDonald

02 May 2024

By Gerry McDonald, CEO and Group Principal of New City College

The new report, 100% opportunity: the case for a tertiary education system, from Association of Colleges doesn’t pull any punches. It sets out a clear and pithy summary of what is wrong with our current approach to post-16 education and skills and what we should do to fix it.

There is much to agree with here; I can see the merit of a new national social partnership body that leverages across the government, reducing the siloed approaches that have become a break on productivity and have stopped genuine transformation. It’s also good to revisit mission clarity across the complex web of institutions that make up our sector. The question here will be trade-offs – will colleges give up, say, some higher education (HE) provision if they are protected from school competition? Do we retreat to well-defined institutional boxes like much of the rest of Europe or continue to battle on in the competitive landscape we are so familiar with?

We also desperately need a review of the effectiveness of devolution. So far London, which is where New City College operates, is a devolution success story with genuine partnership between funder and provider. But how long will this last if the funding remains stuck at 2019 levels? And are we really a large enough economy to have no national system of funding for adult skills? The skills needs of our regions do differ considerably, but the more parochial we become, the more we restrict mobility and potentially fail in our national aspirations. We need to be more than the sum of our parts.

There is one idea in AoC’s report that deserves more attention: in the newly envisaged system, colleges will be given agency to flex national qualifications. In my view, this is absolutely fundamental and as a sector we don’t make enough of a fuss about it.

We have become conditioned, I think, to delivering pre-determined qualifications where all the thinking and curriculum design has been done elsewhere and, inevitably, several years ago. Our construction teachers, for example, tell me they are delivering out-of-date techniques because the course specification demands that they do. The labour market, business environment, and technology context in which we all live and work is changing so rapidly; a static, pre-determined qualification structure can never equip our students adequately. Our vocational and skills-based qualifications become out of date almost as soon as we start to deliver them.

But this is the game we keep on playing. As teachers we do our best to keep our courses and delivery current but we are forever pulled back to the syllabus. Darren Hankey, Principal at Hartlepool College makes this point well in his recent Think Further post. We are down in the minutiae of assessment evidence, looking backwards.

We need to be honest about the challenge. Local skills improvement plans expect, rightly, responsive colleges with agile teams who can adapt to industry need as it arises. That doesn’t happen in the straitjacket of qualifications which speak to the past, rather than the needs of today.

There is a radical idea here. We can be bolder in designing qualifications that are ‘incomplete’, that are rigid and tight in describing immutable knowledge and skill sets that are consistent from cohort to cohort over time, while also being open and undefined to allow space for new knowledge and skills that emerge as we move forward. An ambiguity that doesn’t undermine the value of a qualification but serves to make those who achieve it the best they can be.

Of course, if we are to do this then we need to trust our colleges and training providers to fill in the gaps. Our future students would qualify with the most relevant, up-to-date and industry-validated skill set possible. Our teachers and trainers can have those industry conversations. Awarding organisations can validate college-designed curricula. Together, colleges and employers can genuinely co-design fluid, adaptive qualifications that simultaneously hold true to core skills but flex to let in new ones. There is a strong precedent in school academies and, of course universities, who enjoy freedom to innovate in curriculum design that is sadly lacking in the colleges sector.

There is real opportunity here; all it takes is trust.

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