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Last week saw the return of the face-to-face Association of Colleges (AoC) Annual Conference and Exhibition. Gateway Qualifications was there to catch up with colleagues from across the sector and chat about how we can meet the challenges of the years ahead together.

Here are some of our top takeaways from the conference…

It’s Good to be Back!

There was a buzz in the air at the ICC as the FE community got to reunite after nearly two years apart at the AoC Annual Conference and Exhibition. It’s fair to say that the sector was extremely happy to be getting back to normal and there was a sea of smiling faces as people got to catch up, network and be back together. There was a strong sense of pride and love of FE and for the resilience of both Staff and Learners in unprecedented times. It was good to be back to work together, collaborate and celebrate the hard work being undertaken in FE and we enjoyed welcoming colleagues from the sector to our exhibition stand to catch and discuss how we can support them in meeting the challenges ahead.

Leadership and Learners

In his headline speech to the conference, AoC Chief Executive, David Hughes, provided an overview of change since he took up his post in 2016. He feels the sector is starting to be heard but there is still much more to do, although encouragingly there is a feeling that the minister is listening.

David felt that for him there are two big areas. Leadership and learners.

Leadership

Be proud of what we have achieved but ask yourself what more can we deliver, what more should we focus on.  We must take a Systems leadership collaboration approach with partners. Sustainability and net-zero are at the top of the agenda with 2 million green jobs forecast in the next 10 years. Every job is a green job. It needs to be embedded into every curriculum area. Equality and diversity. We must do much more to be inclusive and representative of today’s society.

Learners

Regarding qualifications and assessments, there is too much focus on what employers want and not enough consideration on what learners need. Mental health support needs to be high on the agenda. SEND review consultation in spring and needs to be factored into your plans. Don’t forget the enrichment and learner engagement activities. Too many funding cuts have impacted these four themes.

Digital is everywhere

Digital strategies have evolved greatly in the last two years and are still evolving. The pandemic has accelerated new modes of working and learning, raising the expectations of learning being available at any time, at any place, anywhere.  Colleges can better serve wider communities through the increased availability of distance learning.  It’s also key to recruit the right staff, encourage staff to adapt to using technology and support their own professional development, but also to monitor digital wellbeing and encourage good practice in this area.

However, there is still a large section of society that are digitally excluded and Colleges have a part to play in supporting these people through providing access to devices, digital skills training and internet access. To find out more, join Gateway Qualification’s forthcoming webinar discussion Fixing the Digital Divide: How the sector can help to bridge the gap in a fragmented digital society.

We must also continue to prepare digitally for the future of vocational education, through embedding digital skills in existing qualifications and developing modern, up-to-date qualifications to meet the skills shortages for high-end digital and technical skills.

Sustainability and green jobs are good but need a clear plan and support

Sustainability, green skills, biodiversity and zero-carbon was mentioned everywhere. It’s a serious consideration for colleges now and another key element to include in cross-college curriculum but it will also be mandated when improving college estates and day to day operations.

Almost every College has sustainability as an aim in their strategic plans. The challenge for the sector now is how to embed sustainability into the curriculum for learners. The road map on how to do so is confusing and staff will need support and training. The FE College community recognise the need to grow and become one of the steppingstones to ‘green jobs’ but it is not yet clear who will deliver them.

T-Levels: Part of the solution but not the whole picture

Perhaps unsurprisingly, T-Levels dominated the conversation at the Conference.  Colleges talked of their experiences of T Levels so far and some of the challenges they had experienced.  The transition year is crucial for Learners who are moving to T-Levels to adequately prepare them as the provision is radically different to the previous provision they had undertaken.

In her speech to the Conference, the shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green MP, called for a four-year moratorium in scraping BTECs, and Jo Saxton from Ofqual expressed concern that the pace of the reforms was too quick.

T level transition

The new revised framework for T Level Transition Programmes is due to be published in January and there was interest from colleges in a transition programme based on the new framework for learners will need that preparatory support, so they have every chance of success.

If you’d like to be part of our T Level Transition community and help to shape our offer, sign up here to find out more.

Funding

Funding is far too complicated. Devolution has just added more complexity to the system.  We need all qualifications at level 3 funded for adults not just a restricted list.  Long courses don’t always work for adults with work and other commitments.

Mental Health and Well-being

Mental Health and well-being was a key theme throughout the whole conference. There are concerns within colleges at the rising number of issues as well as the different types arising. Embedding mental health into the curriculum is becoming more important and it is clear that a one size fits all method is not right for all learners. South Thames College Group discussed their method of using a variety of assessment methods to assist different learners. From a recent student survey, they found that presentations were students’ least favourite assessment method and not exams as many suspected. The staff found a way of assessing student presentations amongst different audiences to reduce the anxiety of learners presenting in front of their classmates. In addition, the use of QR codes in class to allow learners to anonymously contribute and ask questions was a great way to encourage all learners to engage. The key theme throughout was to get to know the learners to see what fits for them.

AoC President, Sally Dicketts, also reminded delegates to consider their own health, not just that of their learners and underlined the importance of making time for our own well-being and taking the time out to recharge.

Employers, employers, employers

Another constant reminder by many speakers was that provision must be shaped by employers. Although, according to some college leaders, the system can’t respond quick enoughAndy Berry, Principal of Bridgewater & Taunton College, mentioned that reforms to the funding and qualification landscape were key in responding to employers’ requirements.

Pathways to employment start at level 2 and below and that shouldn’t be forgotten by policymakers.

Collaboration is key

Throughout the conference, it was clear that collaboration is key.  Collaborative projects, collaborative learning, collaborative technology, not only across college but across the sector.  It is powerful when we develop partnerships, support each other to develop change and improve, and when we share those golden nuggets of best practice.  As a sector, we are better off when we work together.