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Why we are too focused on supply side solutions to demand led problems - James Staniforth

06 July 2023

James Staniforth, Principal and Chief Executive, Shrewsbury Colleges Group

In 2012, I was principal of a tertiary college in Somerset and we enjoyed visits from two overseas delegations. Firstly from Central South Technical School in Yeuyang, China and then from Lomet Vocational High School in Lot-et-Garonne in France. At Central South Technical School their 10,000 students were allocated to programmes in hospitality, engineering and paper-folding. At Lomet Vocational High School, 600 students arrived to study on day 1, none of whom the school had met before and therefore there was no sense of whether the student had the prior learning to study beauty therapy or business. In this context, our post-16 system seems to offer both individual choice and institutional autonomy to ensure the right students are on the right course.

The persistent challenge regarding the current approach is that employers perceive that it doesn’t work. Their concerns appear to be threefold. Firstly, young people are not employment ready because they don’t have the necessary skills, often defined rather loosely as “soft” skills or “employability skills”. Secondly, young people study the wrong courses – “too many hairdressers and not enough bricklayers” as was reported in 2015 by the Financial Times. Thirdly, adult education doesn’t meet employer needs because qualifications and individuals that attract funding through the AEB are not the qualifications and individuals employers want.

In this context, government skills policy makes sense. The DfE briefing on the Skills and Post-16 Education Act identifies that “the existing pattern of provision delivered by the system often fails to meet the skills needed by the labour market”. Colleges need to deliver the courses that employers want to meet the local skills needs and devolved authorities can help this process with local flexibilities regarding eligibility. In the West Midlands Combined Authority, for example, priority has been given for using the AEB to deliver Level 3 courses because 3 per cent fewer West Midlands residents are qualified at Level 3 or above, compared with the national average. And colleges should collaborate to create centres of excellence and avoid duplicating provision.

So far, so good. The problem is that the policy is somewhat challenged by the reality. Labour market intelligence describes what was needed six months to two years earlier. And even if live LMI was readily available, there is a lag between communicating to young people and adults the job vacancies and the training available and their qualification ready to work in that sector. Sectors that are subject to boom and bust are particularly problematic – in a boom there are lots of job vacancies but not enough teachers and in a bust there are lots of teachers but no jobs. Colleges try to maintain provision through bust but have budgets to balance and in boom don’t have the staff or facilities to meet the huge increase in demand. The quality of LMI data and how it is interpreted is also relevant. It turned out that the researcher who declared there were too many hairdressers for the number of job vacancies forgot about self-employment – I know this because I was in the meeting in London where the individual concerned glibly announced their error.

Furthermore, predicting future skills needs is like predicting the winner of the 4.40 at Cheltenham. You know there will be a need (a winner) but you will lose your shirt if you bet everything because there is too much uncertainty. If fact, you might be better off at Cheltenham, because you know a horse will win, whereas the skills needed in the future have not even been invented yet – as Henry Ford famously explained, if he had given people want they wanted he would have given them a faster horse not a car.

It is also the case that collaboration, which has always been a real strength of FE, works best when there are shared values between the partners and when you aren’t in direct competition. Geography does not mean affinity. I support Sheffield United. We have links with clubs in Belgium, China and India, as well as in Buxton, but we certainly don’t collaborate with Sheffield Wednesday. I know of one college working in an SDF project who had its project lead poached by one of the partner colleges. Collaborate with anyone more than 30 miles away and compete with everyone else was an early piece of advice I received from a well-known principal who is stepping back this year.

Finally, are college teachers simply the vocational equivalent of Dicken’s Thomas Gradgrind, filling students up with imperial gallons of skills? Education matters for its own sake. How many prime ministers have studied construction or engineering, health or care? Subjects like history and geography, classics and religious studies, music and performing arts clearly have huge social and cultural value and enrich the world in which they live, but if what matters is just the pounds and pence value of everything then we should have a look at the value of sales of movie tickets and books for historical stories. This is a billion-pound industry and generally creativity is seen as one of the strengths of the English education and skills system.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge is that we are focusing on supply side solutions to demand led problems. Students have choice and they choose to study what interests and enthuses them. They also are more aware of the local job market than government might think, and it is a market. Last year all our L3 Manufacturing Engineers left college and took jobs. Engineering companies complained that we weren’t providing them with apprentices but students were taking £30k a year roles rather than lower paid apprenticeships. Students can earn more than £10/hour working in hospitality and retail in Shrewsbury, so earning £4.81 as an apprentice in Care, working to 2am and then trying to travel home in a rural area isn’t their first choice. If this is an issue for colleges, it has to also be a workforce development issue for employers.

Colleges are used to accountability – I remember a former Further Education Commissioner telling me that colleges were subject to more than 200 accountability measures, and that was ten years ago – but holding us accountable for student choices and collaboration in a demand led environment makes little sense. If we want to focus on supply side solutions, we need to change the demand led culture that underpins the relationship between colleges and our funders, rather than perpetuating a competitive environment through funding per student, competitive capital bids and Ofsted grades.

Our best piece of employer responsive work is with an international company. Ofsted will never assess this work, we are not directly meeting local skills needs, and we will certainly never mention it in our published Accountability Statement to tip off our competitors! But the company chose to work with us after carrying out due diligence on seventy providers. They work with us because we co-designed the programmes and the delivery, and because we were very clear about what we needed to make the programme work and therefore the investment needed. The work was so successful that the students we trained at L3 out-performed students from the companies graduate programme when they were put into the workplace. Other colleges have similar stories. We could all do so much more with more trust, more flexibility, less regulation and more understanding of the complexity and nuance of our student communities.

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