Delivering on the skills agenda

Owen McQuade talks skills and education with Trevor Carson, Director of the Learning and Skills Development Agency.

As Trevor Carson acknowledges, “massive change” is under way in the further education (FE) and training sector, resulting in new challenges for colleges, training organisations and their staff. A former lecturer himself, Carson is well placed to understand the impact of reform within this important area which introduces many young people to the world of work.

“What it [the sector] has had to do is to focus on two main things. One is the curriculum offer and this is becoming more demand-led rather than ‘here’s what’s in the prospectus, take it or leave it’. On the back of that, the sector is now having to look at the skills that it’s staff has and whether these match up to what their clients need; that’s quite a challenge,” Carson remarks.

Leadership is vital

With a large number of staff in middle and senior management positions having received voluntary redundancy following college mergers at the end of the 2007- 2008 academic year, the sector has lost a “considerable reservoir of knowledge, experience and leadership” at a critical time. Further education reform has led to the establishment of large complex organisations and getting the right structures in place to run these colleges is taking longer than their directors had anticipated.

Economy facing curriculum

Development of a curriculum that is appropriate to the sector’s clients is the most critical priority for LSDA NI. By clients, the agency means the organisations which use its services – such as work-based learning providers, community groups, schools – and also the individual students who enrol at the colleges.

The prime function of the sector is summed up in the policy document ‘FE means business’ which supports economic development. Delivering on this is not easy, Carson explains, as it is often difficult for businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, to articulate their needs.

When a need is identified in a company, the response of many managers is: “Yes, we need this but we can’t afford to let people out to get trained.” To help companies in this position, colleges are looking at how they can provide training either online or in-house within the business, in a cost-effective way.

Business focus

Training organisations have traditionally been more business-oriented “because if they didn’t have a bottom line that was black, they went bust. Unlike statutory organisations there is no-one such as government to pick up the tab”.

Another difficulty has been how to balance the ‘FE means business’ policy with lifelong learning and the focus on social inclusion. Expanding on this, Carson adds: “If you’re a principal with a large number of community groups pressing you and saying: ‘We need capacity-building at a grassroots level to get people on the skills ladder’, it’s balancing how much of your budget can reasonably be invested in that and yet meeting your prime or priority target which is supporting economic development.”

Partnership working

Taking a broad view of the sector, he reflects that while it is “probably a very critical time in [its] history” this also presents good opportunities. LSDA NI has been helping the sector to improve the quality of the training and education which it provides and has built up useful alliances to assist it in this work.

The agency works very closely with Lifelong Learning UK, which is responsible for the professional standards of lecturers, senior managers and governors in colleges. “If colleges and training organisations are going to be successful, then they have to take their workforce development seriously,” he comments.

The work of the Education and Training Inspectorate also complements LSDA NI. If the inspectorate identifies problems within an organisation, LSDA NI is brought in to help the organisation draw up an action plan to help effect areas and methods for improvement.

“If colleges don’t take their quality improvement seriously then they leave themselves open to criticism from business and industry. In the last few years, the sector has moved on considerably in this,” he continues.

Industry links

The LSDA NI Director points to Toyota’s training facility within the Northern Regional College as evidence that colleges are treating their links with industry seriously.

“Yes, it supports Toyota but when it’s not being used by Toyota, it’s available to the college for use. This is a very effective partnership and one where a big multinational recognises the quality of staff and the synergy that can come from joint working. We need more of that.”

The car manufacturer has invested £1 million in state-of-the-art equipment at the college site, and this level of cutting edge, up-to-date machinery and facilities can be found in all of the province’s colleges.

Entitled to learn

Turning to statutory education, Carson says that the real emphasis in the continuing debate over this area of policy should be on the new Entitlement Framework, which promises access to a range of academic and vocational subjects for all school pupils.

“We know that there are some important decisions to be made about transfer at 11 or 14. The headlines have been about selection at 11 but actually what’s more critical, I think, is the entitlement framework for 14-16 year olds and making sure that young people have the option of following a genuinely vocational route.”

Area planning has not, so far, taken the colleges and what they can offer the education system fully into account. In addition to their facilities, the colleges are staffed by lecturers who have updated their own skills through the LSDA NI led Lecturers into Industry initiative which sends them out on placement to work with companies in the priority skills areas.

“They are then effectively coming back in and letting the young people that they’re teaching get the benefit of this experience.”

Link to learn

Carson contends that schools should not offer the purely vocational option to their pupils without linking to their local college as it would duplicate resources. The colleges are fully equipped with machinery, software and the experienced personnel to train people for jobs in engineering and manufacturing, for instance. To kit schools out also for this would be not only extremely expensive but would replicate the college facilities.

For the past three years, LSDA NI has been helping to manage the pilot phase of the Vocational Enhancement Programme, which involves schools and colleges working together to give pupils the opportunity to follow vocational routes at Key Stage 4 and post-16.

The programme started with all the FE colleges, about 30 schools and 1,100 pupils participating. At the end of the last academic year, it included all six new regional colleges, over 100 post-primary schools and 13,000 pupils. Carson judges that the programme has been “very successful” in helping young people progress into their careers and research has shown that they appreciated the opportunities it presented. Staff in schools also gained a greater understanding of how industry worked.

Initially, colleges had the responsibility for co-ordinating the programme. However, from the start of this academic year, this responsibility passed to the schools and Carson sees this as a backward step.

“It worries me that the good work that’s been going on for the last three years isn’t getting the impetus to make sure it moves on to the next level; and part of that’s caught up with what’s happening in the schools, the rationalisation of the school estate and the questions about staffing levels there. I believe it begs the question: How best should government be exploiting the investment in their nearby regional college to really benefit the pupils?”

The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and the sector, he emphasises, have to find the right answer to that question if the Northern Ireland economy is to benefit from further education.

Leading learning

Part of the remit of LSDA NI is supporting leadership and management in further education and, as outlined, the skills shortage in management is a major challenge for the sector. Due to uncertainty about what the mergers would involve, many staff in first-line management positions were reluctant to step forward to fill the vacancies at middle and upper management levels that were created.

Managing clients and customer care are the key skills now expected of college staff and for some people, he explains, “this is new territory”.

“They initially joined a college because they were a software engineering lecturer for example. Now we’re expecting them to make sure they keep their clients satisfied, whether its Bombardier, Toyota or a class coming in on the first step of the ladder in terms of their skills development,” he continued.

“If the sector gets its leadership and management development right, then it should be much better placed to meet the challenges of supporting the economy and the development of the workforces in Northern Ireland.”

Excellence is the foundation

For a long time, the colleges were seen as the ‘second chance’ for people who did not do as well at school, but Carson is keen to challenge this stereotype. “It’s not second-chance anymore, it’s colleges’ centres of excellence that provide the opportunity for a quality learning experience to develop vital skills. It’s not just in engineering. You can look at the programmes where vocational areas rely on their staff working in them to be trained by the FE sector – health and social care, hospitality, tourism, creative skills industries amongst others.”

On foundation degrees, he is pleased with the work taking place to improve how these courses are provided but adds that more debate is needed to work out whether these should be developed by Northern Ireland’s two universities solely or whether they should be widened out to other higher educational institutions, such as the Open University and mainland institutions.

DEL doing well

He thinks that DEL’s strategies on skills and further education are “going in the right direction” and says: “The challenge for all of us involved in education and training is to help DEL keep going in the right direction, to make sure that the progression routes for young people and the not so young are in place.”

LSDA NI has been tasked by DEL to support the FE sector and the training organisations to meet the next big challenge of the Vocational Qualifications Reform Programme. By 2010, this will see vocational courses moved from the existing National Qualifications Framework into the new Qualifications and Credit Framework. Most of the colleges are already used to working with credit through the Open College Network but this work needs to be built on in the colleges.

“What needs to happen in the colleges is that they see the opportunity that unitisation and credit offers because it should help meet the needs of business and industry better, with flexibility and bite-size learning for the individual that can build up credit as they go along.”

Schools and skills

One problem facing the system is a lack of awareness about the importance of skills in schools. Research by LSDA NI has shown that 92 per cent of college staff took priority skills areas into account in their work with young people, while the figure in schools was below 30 per cent.

“Something needs to be done to raise awareness in the schools sector that yes, you’re educating a young person as a whole person but you really need to take account of what opportunities are out there and then to build the progression routes accordingly, whether it’s into the existing HND or whether it’s into foundation degrees,” he states.

In particular, the careers information, advice and guidance structures need more priority and development in schools. Parents are a strong influence on young people’s choices and he says that they need to be shown that vocational training is a worthwhile route to follow. Colleges need to show parents, young people and school teachers their “world-class” facilities in vocational areas.

“Engineering isn’t an ‘oily rag’ job anymore. There’s a high skills level and a range of exciting and worthwhile opportunities,” Carson adds. A Level 4 vocational qualification, he explains, can make a young person “far better prepared for the world of work rather than simply going on and completing a degree”. However, he finds that people who advise young people on their career options tend not to understand this or point the vocational route out as an option.

“It’s disappointing and it’s damaging to the economy eventually. If [colleges] had clearly articulated routes, what it may well do is reduce the talent drain across to GB and wider afield. Because for a lot of young people who go across to the universities in Scotland, England and Wales, the percentage of them returning to employment here is woefully low. If you get your [career advice] structures right at home, you’re more likely to keep that talent.”

Essential skills

The drive to improve literacy and numeracy standards in the population also needs more attention. When Carson was involved in one of the sub-groups helping to inform on the Essential Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland five years ago, over 20 per cent of young people were leaving school with poor literacy or numeracy skills. If the strategy was as successful as it could be, he thinks that this level could be reduced but probably only to about 12 per cent.

“What we see in the support we give for Essential Skills to the further education and training sector and the voluntary and community sector is that there’s a drain on the finite resource. If these young people came out of school equipped with the essential skills in the first place, we wouldn’t have to invest at tertiary level in this,” he comments.

Helping people in employment who have literacy and numeracy problems is more difficult, as it can be harder for them to find time to go to a night class or community group provision.

More effort is needed to tackle poor numeracy. People are more willing to admit to having “a problem with numbers” than saying that they cannot read or write, but there are fewer lecturers involved in numeracy teaching.

With the increasing importance of ICT in all areas of life, from working to shopping, getting literacy and numeracy right is even more vital.

“As people access e-learning, unfortunately what can happen is that the more well-off part of society have access to computers at home and encourage their children to use the technology,” he notes.

“If somebody has a literacy and numeracy deficit, it is reinforced by this technology producing a further essential skills deficit. What this is doing is creating an even bigger step for people to get on to the employment ladder and make a positive contribution to their community. It gets us back to the question of social inclusion and what interventions the Government should be putting into their policies to make sure that they’re not widening this gap.”

Joined up government

Closing these skills gaps, and therefore helping people to become more included in society, is an issue that cuts across the remits of several government departments. Carson is therefore keen that staff across government work more closely together to find solutions which help people get the right training and education.

“What I hear occasionally is: ‘Why should my budget pay for this?’ A more solutions-based approach would be: ‘These pots of money, if we add them together, how can we achieve more?’ It means people have to be a little less protective of their realm and look at what’s in the best interest of their clients.”

Profile: Trevor Carson

Trevor Carson is the Director of LSDA Northern Ireland. He is a teacher by profession having taught for 10 years in Belfast’s Boys’ Model School where he “enjoyed the challenges”. He also lectured at Belfast Institute and worked with the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges. Outside work his interests include “a keen interest in rugby”; Trevor had a column on junior rugby in Ireland’s Saturday Night. He plays a “little” golf and is an avid reader, “mostly thrillers, and crime, any Dalziel and Pascoe”. He enjoys “pottering about the garden and getting away to Portrush at the weekends”.

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