By Scott Bullock – Principal of Newcastle College

Working in further education feels as though we’re working under a spotlight at the moment, but it’s one that I welcome.

Like everyone else, we’ve adapted to a lot of change this year and there is no doubt more to come, but I’ve been so heartened by the resilience of my colleagues and students at Newcastle College.

Together, we moved almost overnight to a new way of teaching and learning, we supported our students through delays to exam results and we’ve continued to support them through a pandemic that disproportionately affects them.

We’ve responded to policy and guidance changing on an increasingly regular basis and, as we prepare for an inevitable increase in demand for retraining and upskilling as we step up to support our region’s recovery from the impact of COVID-19, the important role that colleges play has never been clearer.

It feels like we’re approaching a pivotal moment of change, so it’s actually a really exciting time to be part of the FE sector.

Last month, the Independent Commission for the College of the Future released its final report and made some key recommendations for what the UK needs from colleges over the next decade.

The first was to make lifelong learning a statutory right for everybody, so that all of us can upskill at any point in our lives, no matter which route we choose.

Being in the heart of the North East, where there is relatively high unemployment and poverty levels, we’ve always positioned Newcastle College
in the heart of our community and really focused on providing accessible education for everybody at every stage of life.

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee announced by the Government earlier this year sounds like it will support that recommendation and help colleges to provide even more opportunities for adults in our local communities, but that isn’t expected to start until early 2021. Right now, the impact of COVID-19 means that unemployment is rising, so being able to offer that upskilling, cross- skilling and retraining is more urgent than ever.

We’re working to ensure that we can do everything we can to support those who need it back into work, or even into a new sector. We’ve started some great work around digital skills and employability skills for adults tied into the North of Tyne digital strategy, and we’re really assessing what the upskilling needs of the region will be in the coming months.

The College of the Future report also recommends that college strategies should be aligned to local and regional priorities and employment needs and I am pleased to say that this is an area in which Newcastle College already excels.

It has always been one of our biggest priorities, to listen to what employers in our region require and to respond by shaping our curriculum to meet those needs. That is something that benefits businesses but it also benefits our learners, who can access high-quality teaching and exceptional facilities and leave us with skills that are going to benefit them in their career. I think that is evident in the technical courses that we offer, from our Digital provision to our Energy Academy, both of which are guided by Advisory Boards made up of local industry leaders.

In the coming months and years, further education colleges will play an even bigger role in supporting our local communities and economies. As well as supporting the economic recovery and rebuild from this pandemic, we must also keep in mind that we’re approaching what may well be a no-deal Brexit and the effects of that on our region and our country aren’t yet known.

The Association of Colleges recently ran a survey with SMEs and found that 68 per cent of them fear that not enough is being done to help them prepare their workforce for the end of the Brexit transition period and believe that skills should be a top priority for the Government.

That’s a national outlook, but now more than ever we recognise how important it is to listen to our local employers and understand how their plans and priorities have changed, and will change, and how we can respond to that.

It does seem that the Government has skills and further education high on the agenda and alongside talk of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, we’ve also seen the introduction of incentives for employers taking on new apprentices, although that will be ending in January.

We’re expecting the FE White Paper to be published very soon (perhaps by the time this magazine is published it will already be released) and while we don’t know exactly what it will look like just yet, recent talk from the Government suggests that we can expect significant investment into both lifelong learning and measures to align college provision even more closely with employers.

Right now, it’s a case of waiting to see exactly what reform is planned and how that will affect the work we’re already doing in these priority areas and how it will enable us to do even more.

Being in the North East, the focus of Newcastle College has always been (and always will be) on how we can support the local priorities and the needs of our local community. But as part of NCG, we also have an opportunity to collaborate with colleges in other regions who have the same priorities as us and work together to find new ways to support our own students and employers in our own area. It’s a fantastic opportunity to share best practice, help each other to enable social mobility and make a collective impact on a national scale.

So, while we might not know the details just yet, I am optimistic for the future of further education and even more so for its future here in the North East.

No matter what further changes or challenges appear in the coming months, Newcastle College will be at the forefront of the response and our focus will remain on developing talented students of all ages and backgrounds, with the skills that employers in our area need, so that we can support the recovery and rebuild of our region.

Newcastle College