Inter-sectoral working, where knowledge is shared between the FE sector, wider education sectors, employers and armed forces personnel, is helping to ensure learners develop the insight and soft skills needed to transition into industry. David Adams outlines how this is working in practice.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 edition of InTuition journal, the full contents of which are available to SET Members. Learn more.
Further education (FE) can have many different purposes, but technical education is almost always closely linked to employers’ requirements.
That means the curriculum, teaching approaches and choice of resources or equipment learners will use should be aligned with the knowledge, skills and behaviours employers need employees in specific roles and sectors to possess. This is the primary reason why policymakers have sought to encourage FE and higher education (HE) institutions and providers to work closely with employers on the planning and delivery of courses and qualifications.
In recent years that theory has been turned into effective practice by growing numbers of FE colleges and other providers using intersectoral learning, a process of transferring knowledge between the FE sector and private or public sector employers.
While inter-sectoral learning is always based on collaboration between the employer and FE institution or provider, it must also focus on learning approaches and individuals’ learning experiences. Active learning approaches are often used, incorporating hands-on experience of, for example, operating specialist equipment or time spent in a real or simulated work environment. In addition, inter-sectoral learning approaches also tend to incorporate behavioural and soft skills training to help prepare learners for the reality of working life.
Ben Houlihan FSET is now head of teaching, learning and development at Capita Learning, but was formerly head of quality, teaching and digital innovation at Bridgwater and Taunton College (BTC). In both roles he has been closely involved in inter-sectoral collaborations and learning. At BTC he and his colleagues collaborated extensively with employers in the nuclear industry as part of the college’s role as the southern hub of the UK’s National College for Nuclear (NCfN).
The hub, located at BTC’s Cannington campus, is a few miles away from the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station construction site: a huge project that has stimulated demand for people able to work in a wide range of roles within the nuclear industry in south-west England. Work with EDF, which will operate the plant, has fed into the design of courses ranging from Level 3 to honours degrees and degree apprenticeships. Learners and apprentices at the hub can access training facilities including virtual reality (VR) environments and a reactor simulator.
Many of these learners have benefited enormously from this inter-sectoral work, as have EDF and other employers in its supply chain. Other learners at BTC can use some of the technologies and facilities at Cannington to support their studies, thus helping to prepare them for careers in other sectors including engineering and healthcare.
Similar benefits are being generated at the NCfN at Lakes College in West Cumbria, where again learners are studying for courses, apprenticeships and degrees linked to the nuclear industry and other careers based on engineering and other technical skills.
Chris Fairclough FSET, curriculum operations leader for higher engineering, science and nuclear at Lakes College, says the FE and HE courses delivered within his department have been designed to meet the needs of employers in the engineering and science sectors in west Cumbria.
Employers helped shape course content for students and training for staff. Teachers include experts who have worked in industry, alongside staff who work at other academic institutions but travel to the college to deliver guest lectures on specialist subjects. VR and other technologies help enable delivery of an experience-based learning approach. Industry standards are used as the basis for competency assessments.
At BTC, inter-sectoral learning has also helped to enrich other courses, including the Health (Nursing) T Level and apprenticeships and degrees in nursing, health and social care. BTC is working with NHS employers including Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton to develop and refine course content, run student work placements and train learners to use specialist equipment.
One valuable quality of inter-sectoral learning is that it helps FE colleges and providers to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology and technical development within sectors such as engineering and manufacturing. That principle has informed the development and delivery of courses by the colleges and other education providers that comprise the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Institute of Technology (GBSIoT).
One of the 21 Institutes of Technology (IoTs) across England – which build partnerships between networks of local colleges, universities and employers – is the GBSIoT. One of the original 12 selected, it is focused on courses for learners seeking to work for advanced manufacturing and engineering employers.
GBSIoT members share learning from work with employers and other resources, such as specialist equipment. “I think the real key is that this is bringing people together,” says Rosa Wells, executive dean, engineering, digital and sustainable construction at University College, Birmingham, and a director of the GBSIoT. “If we can optimise what we’re doing and learn from each other, that benefits all of us.”
These inter-sectoral collaborations have informed learning approaches and course content linked to advanced manufacturing, as well as the manufacture and maintenance of electric vehicles (EVs) in Level 2 and 3 automotive courses at Solihull College and University Centre, and design of EV-linked courses for mechanics already working in the region.
The future of the automotive industry is also being enhanced by another inter-sectoral learning initiative in eastern England, at Lincoln College. Peter Jackson FSET, learning and skills lead for automotive engineering at the college, explains that this work began after he and his colleagues visited the Autoinform Live event at Wolverhampton in 2016.
They were surprised both by the extent to which some parts of the industry had started to move towards use of EVs, and by changing attitudes in an industry where collaboration and communication had been limited in the past. “Suddenly manufacturers and component suppliers really wanted to share what was going on in the industry and to raise awareness of the systems being fitted to vehicles,” Jackson recalls.
Over the next three years Lincoln College started to work with manufacturers and employers to try to raise more awareness of the expertise needed to work with EVs and related technologies, such as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Attendances at these events have increased and Lincoln College has helped to organise more of them around the country, including events designed specifically for employers, mechanics, teachers, trainers, apprentices and young people.
This inter-sectoral collaboration has helped Lincoln College to add EV and ADAS expertise and employers’ input into its own automotive programmes at Levels 1, 2 and 3, and into courses run for mechanics already working in the industry. Jackson and his colleagues have also supported automotive departments in other FE colleges seeking to improve their provision of such courses, including the creation of the AutoInform roadshow.
This is an example of inter-sectoral collaboration and learning helping an industry to prepare for a huge transformation, with sales of new petrol and diesel cars due to be phased out in the UK from 2030. There is a need to convey the speed and implications of these changes to those already working in the industry, or those who are considering a career within it.
Inter-sectoral working is also enriching the training services that Capita Learning now provides for the Royal Navy as lead partner in a consortium called Team Fisher, which also includes technology providers and the University of Lincoln. More than 800 staff previously working for the Royal Navy now work for employers in the Team Fisher consortium, which aims to use technology to transform and modernise shore-based training for the navy.
“The navy wants to improve its training and recognises the need for more inter-sectoral working to generate new ideas,” says Houlihan, who works for Capita and Team Fisher. The consortium is working with other FE colleges and providers, and also with another Capita partner TeachingHOW2s, which will deliver personalised pedagogical support, helping to drive continuous improvement in teaching and training for navy personnel.
Inter-sectoral work is also helping to recruit more trainers and teachers for all parts of the education sector, including people who have previously worked in industry and some who have served in the armed forces. Indeed, if inter-sectoral learning is backed by investment in both the people and the other resources needed to deliver it effectively, learning devised and delivered on this basis could make a major contribution to closing the skills gaps affecting employers.
“Colleges are there to serve the people and employers in their locality,” says Fairclough. “By working with employers in the community we are supporting local industry, but without making those connections, how do we know that what we’re delivering is relevant?”
But, above all, effective inter-sectoral learning is beneficial for students and apprentices. As Houlihan says, it should leave learners “more ready for work, with a clearer line of sight to what their future career might look like”. Employers, and society too, will benefit from that.
David Adams is a freelance journalist