Business and education need to co-create skills development

It is unfortunately still the case that the status-quo in education is setting up too many young people to fail in the workplace, through no fault of their own. Worse, this is handicapping the capacity of small and medium businesses up and down the country to be reliable engines of growth. Students are not getting enough experience of what it means to work as part of a business, and there is too much teaching of skills in isolation.The solution lies not only in increasing the links between education and business, but crucially in an approach that sees skills development become the co-creation of business and education. We need schools and colleges to work in radical new ways with businesses of all sizes, and in all sectors, to deliver an education that is both engaging and relevant for the challenges of the 21st Century workplace.

In this regard, the commercial context to skills and training is vital: education should not just be about learning how to be a builder or beautician, to take two examples. Rather, it should also include gaining the experience of what it takes to run a construction site or a salon.Gazelle, the group I co-founded with four other college principals and CEOs in 2011, has brought together a cluster of 19 further education colleges committed to transforming themselves through entrepreneurial principles. This transformation is focused on curriculum change, and internal reform, but also creating new strategic relationships with businesses and the local enterprise community. The ambition for each Gazelle college is that it should be at the centre of an enterprise ecosystem, helping to resource growing businesses and provide infrastructure and innovation support.At the heart of this ambition is the idea of the learning company. These are college-owned social enterprises that are employing students on a contractual basis, and acting as self-sustaining commercial entities. Gazelle is creating a realistic working environment to challenge students to learn the skills they need for the modern workplace, all the while providing the structures of learning and training support.

The Learning Company model, such as Zanas Media at City College Norwich, is pioneering a radically different approach.  

At City College Norwich, for example, we have a media production learning company, Zanas Media, which sees students come into the college Monday-Friday, 9-5, and work on real commissions for external clients, such as their recent live broadcasts from the Norwich Sound and Vision Festival. EYE Film and Television in Norwich, and a growing list of clients, are key partners helping the College to co-create these fantastic and unique learning opportunities for our students.Another exciting development, in which another TEN Group member, Wayland Academy Norfolk, has been closely involved, is the Swarm apprenticeships venture. Set up by social entrepreneur Robert Ashton, Swarm is a membership organisation that has been set up to encourage small businesses in the county’s market towns to take on apprentices. Swarm employs the apprentices directly, freeing the businesses of paperwork, with the aim that at the end of the year the apprentice will transfer employment from Swarm to the business they’re working with.Business partners have also been pivotal in shaping our newest institution, University Technical College Norfolk, which from next September will provide learning focussed on science, technology and maths to prepare young people for careers in the advanced engineering and energy sectors. Our UTC students will work on Technical Challenges which have been devised by employers, including Future Marine Services, Gardline Marine Sciences and Lotus Cars, to mirror exactly the type of projects they will be expected to undertake in their future working lives.It is this co-creation of skills development, made possible by education and employers working more closely than ever before, and often in completely new ways, that is essential to meeting the skills challenge before us.