Stuart Wesselby, principal of Tresham College of Further and Higher Education, discusses the outcomes of the Wolf Report three years on and the implications for FE providers.
It's been a tumultuous few years for the UK economy, creating challenges that have provided a catalyst for change in the way education is funded, targeted and delivered.
For those of us at the rock face of ensuring education provision addresses the needs of both young people and employers, there has been an essential cultural evolution. The picture of success has changed from one that prioritises the number of qualifications achieved by each student to one in which the outcomes are measured by the student's employability or suitability for higher level study.
It's change that was long overdue and one that has fostered a more innovative and holistic approach to designing provision around specific and regionalised commercial and educational requirements.
The approach appears to be working. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures on the number of 16-24 year olds in the UK that are not in education, employment or training (NEET) dipped below the one million level for Q1 of 2014, falling to 975,000, a reduction of 118,000 people as compared to the previous year.
Clearly, there is still a long way to go to reduce those figures still further and much will depend on the continuing economic recovery. However, the level of reform and change of vision achieved since the Wolf Report was published in 2011 indicate a real and sustainable move towards a more outcomes-led sector.
The Wolf Report highlighted the extent to which vocational education had historically been focused on maximising the number of qualifications awarded and the amount of revenue that colleges could achieve, rather than addressing the skills gaps that employers were experiencing.
Professor Wolf suggested a new model that would encourage young people to pursue valuable vocational study at high school level while continuing to ensure that core academic studies such as maths and English were a clear achievement focus.
The further education sector was then targeted with delivering greater employability by generating study programmes that could lead to a variety of job or further study opportunities and ensuring that those who hadn't achieved GCSE passes in core academic studies were encouraged to pursue the grades required by employers.
It was a vision that implicitly demanded a more joined up approach between secondary and further education sectors. Amongst the recommendations was a move to enable FE professionals to teach vocational courses in schools to ensure that students are taught specialist subjects by those appropriately skilled to deliver them.
The report also suggested significant changes to key FE structures, with accreditation shifting from the qualifications to the awarding bodies and a more workplace-oriented approach to delivering apprenticeships.
Just three years on, many of those recommendations have prompted sweeping changes across the sector.
Reform of vocational qualifications taught at pre-16 has led to changes in the way that school league tables are compiled and there has been a change of emphasis from the number of qualifications awarded to the value any qualifications have added to the student's prospects or employability.
Those changes are reflected in amendments to funding models, which means that colleges are now funded per full time student rather than per qualification. This approach supports the drive to ensure that colleges advise individual students on best fit courses to suit their aspirations and the needs of local employers, rather than encouraging them to study for additional qualifications with no added value.
The improvements are backed by league tables that now cover the whole distribution of performance and mandatory study programmes that combine work experience, tutorial, private study and maths and English, with clearly defined target outcomes for work or further study.
It's positive change that we have actively embraced at Tresham College. All our students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning and achieve their full potential, with a goal oriented approach to both vocational and academic study.
That willingness to embrace change, propose new processes, innovate and improve must be delivered at college level across the further education sector if the Wolf Report's vision is really going to improve the prospects of young people.
It's a culture that has been embedded in our values at Tresham and must be delivered consistently by local providers across the country if we are to square the circle of youth unemployment and employer skills shortages.
Stuart Wesselby is principal of Tresham College of Further and Higher Education