Doing more for less in FE and Skills

During a week of disturbing headlines for education, the article Public Accounts Committee to look at FE ‘financial meltdown’ caught my eye, relating as it does to the ongoing saga of FE college finances. Including a reference to the report by the National Audit Office (NAO), which in July stated that the ‘financial health of the FE college sector had been in decline with 110 colleges recording an operating deficit in 2013/14.’   Well clearly the circumstances won’t have improved much since then. 

The causes are many and varied, the most talked about being FE Funding cuts which cannot be underestimated and are more likely to get worse than better anytime soon. But whilst I continue to come across learning providers that use management systems which don’t connect to other systems. Or more often, processes in use from the last century which monitor learners progress using paper forms and spreadsheets and the most advanced technology is an e-mail. I cannot but wonder that whatever else the financial problems organisations have to contend with. Some could to do so much better with what they have or could have, if only the data were more transparent and available in real time’ for the management to know what was actually going on and therefore better placed to take appropriate action.

Of course I am talking technology, that’s what I do. But I can also read a balance sheet and spot waste and inefficiency as well as most. But it appears to me that too many organisations start laying off people (assets) without reviewing where else financial saving and quality improvements could so easily be made. Introducing appropriate Learning Technology is one of the many ways  proven to make a difference financially and in quality of provision. But it would seem that analysis of current business practice in an organisation (and I don’t mean a SAR), is not at the top of the agenda for the majority of the FE & Skills sector.

It’s an assumption  based on much research by many agencies over a long period of time, but here are a few highlights in my time at the front line which I believe to be indicative of the bigger picture:

In just three short consultations this week, one large learning provider found that whilst my recommendations had cost implications to achieve exactly what they needed, it was discovered to be cheaper than the ‘inadequate’ process they were currently using. It was something they accepted but hadn’t previously reviewed.

A much smaller provider asked for help to provide online courses and during a one hour consultation I demonstrated that there were several ways to achieve what was wanted for free plus a little staff training. But I questioned the cost of their ‘bought in materials‘  which it transpired, the staff didn’t like or use, although the site licences continued to be paid.

done-it-this-way2-295x300For classic waste of money, which I know is commonplace across the WBL sector, was when shadowing an assessor visiting apprentices on sites across a wide area, primarily to have documents signed. When I pointed out that this could have been achieved just as effectively in half a dozen other ways, including putting them in the post, he said ‘but we have always done it like this.’ and clearly no one had said to do it otherwise. Is anybody checking?  or is management just accepting what an individual believes appropriate. It turned out to be the latter of course and when I mentioned on or offline forms or digital signatures on a tablet (which the assessors have) it was a mystery to the manager, even though at home, he, like all of us, digitally signs for parcels, meter readings, car hire, etc. etc.  ‘that’s a good idea’ Would I show them how…..!

Petty? Perhaps, but in cost alone,  the first example made a difference of £42,000, the second about £7,000 wasted to date and the ‘daft’ one? I haven’t bothered to calculate, but a days time plus travel expenses times 24 assessors on the road almost every day, doesn’t take a finance director to add up to a complete nonsense. The tip of a very big iceberg.

Fortunately and within this same week I was heartened by a presentation produced by Learning Futures, titled ‘Mastering Governance of Technology for Learning’, aimed at Governors and senior managers it shows the experience of a collaboration of colleges for implementing technology for learning. It demonstrates yet again that whilst there are too many learning providers in ‘financial meltdown’. There are others that are clearly a long way from that description.

macbook-407127_1280Learning Technology isn’t all about cost savings and this excellent video demonstrates that it is far more about learner benefits. Although Worcester College currently estimates that by implementing college wide learning technology the savings over and above all additional costs are around £250,000 per year. That is far from petty and the video shows what it takes to achieve that, most of all, top class leadership and management

So in just a week of disturbing headlines, there is no mention that approximately 75% of learning providers do not use appropriate technology to run their ‘business’ and whilst technology for technology’s sake isn’t the answer, in fact has usually led to appalling waste. The colleges and learning providers that are using learning technology effectively have gone a long way to improving their position, financial or otherwise as management take back control of their ‘business’ from traditional or simply inefficient practices. A bit like successful business’s in or out of education, except that when  mainstream business gets it wrong, they go bust .

A message for those still sitting on the fence.

Step 1: Watch the Learning Futures presentation

Step 2: Take advice from the many colleges that have offered to share their experience

Step 3: Conduct a Learning Technology Review

Step 4: Take back control of whats going on in your ‘business’

Colin Gallacher
Learning Technology Adviser

See also: SFA criticised for failing to check ‘realism’ of ‘over-optimistic’ college financial forecasts

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