Reform Scotland

Colleges delivered Scotland’s Early Learning & Childcare revolution and can do the same for the Green revolution – Anne Campbell

When the Scottish Government announced in 2014 that it planned to more than double the Early Learning and Childcare provision for every three and four-year-old child, it was almost universally welcomed.

Parents were delighted with a flagship policy which would save them around £4900 for each child accessing the scheme for 1140 hours every year. Around 120,000 youngsters would benefit from the extra learning opportunities. Even opposition MSPs found it difficult to criticise such a popular proposal.

But there was a massive obstacle in the way. How was it possible to train thousands of new staff, in little more than five years, to more than double the hours of provision for youngsters? Instigating, developing and delivering a dedicated skills programme on this scale and in such a short timeframe had never been attempted since devolution.

Local authorities needed around 8,000 new early learning and childcare staff, while thousands more were also needed in the private sector. In all, the Scottish Government estimated 11,000 new workers were required. And all of them needed the skills to ensure that children received the best learning and childcare experiences, delivered with kindness and recognition that each child is an individual.

As the country’s main skills providers, Scotland’s colleges were tasked with finding the way to make it all happen by the policy implementation deadline of August 2020. As it happened, Covid intervened to push back the deadline by a year but that did nothing to reduce the challenge.

Across the country, college management teams immediately assessed local needs by working in partnership with private providers, local authorities and agencies, such as Skills Development Scotland, and put together action plans to ensure that the relevant courses were available to provide the skills needed to meet the staffing requirements within their communities.

It was far from just a matter of overnight deciding to offer on a few extra courses. Not only had the right programmes for students to be put together – which in itself was a huge challenge as it had to provide locally-relevant, targeted learning and training for roles ranging from carers to managers. In addition, additional class space had to be found to house the many new students and, equally importantly, lecturers had to be sourced to increase the capacity to deliver the learning needed.

College Development Network’s (CDN) Care Strategy Steering group ensured that regional leads, responsible for the delivery of care courses in Scotland’s colleges, were regularly brought together to discuss and share plans and to facilitate best practice sessions for lecturers.

However, there were no one-size-fits all solutions. The needs of nurseries in a rural communities could often be very different from those in urban settings. Smaller populations might have very specific shortfalls as opposed to those in more populous areas. Larger colleges might have to create entirely new courses, with accompanying recruitment or internal training challenges, while their smaller counterparts could sometimes simply expand existing ones.

The key was to share experiences while still introducing bespoke, local solutions which were uniquely appropriate for the communities in which the colleges were based.

Colleges are incredibly agile organisations, geared towards adapting to meet ever-changing workplace demands. And, while the sheer scale of delivering the early learning and childcare targets was something new, it was something they were confident they could deliver.

Back in 2016-17 there were 9,576 full-time equivalent local authority ELC staff in post. There are now around 17,700 – an increase of more than 80% in little more than five years.

In 2014, when the expansion plans were first announced, Scotland’s colleges enrolled 1,789 students onto the HNC Childhood Practice course. By 2017-18, there were 2,327 students enrolled. The following year it was 2,803, then 2,798 and last year it was around 2,500. That’s an average of 2,607 students enrolling or more than 818 additional students every year since the plans were unveiled.

And that’s just one HNC course. Many, many other students signed up for other courses which provided them with pathways into jobs at every level.

What colleges achieved by ensuring thousands of additional students received world-class training in little more than a five-year window was unprecedented. And, the demand for these skills will continue for years to come as the new sector evolves into one of the country’s biggest employers.

But it doesn’t stop there. Colleges, like students, absorb knowledge from their experiences. Now, the lessons learned during the ELC delivery programme are being used to meet evolving large-scale workplace requirements. Emerging technologies such as artificial technology and machine learning along with the green revolution have created a massive thirst for new skills.

New offshore windfarms plans have already led to a similarly enormous trials for Scotland’s colleges. Many thousands of skilled staff are going to be needed in the coming decade to deliver these giant, green energy providers which, once again are at the heart of a flagship government policy – this time that of tackling the climate emergency by sourcing clean, renewable energy. And Scotland’s colleges are the workhorses which will provide the skills needed to make it happen. In just over a year, they have expanded from three colleges providing training in operations and maintenance to ten, with more likely to follow in areas like fabrication.

The number of ‘green’ jobs being created are enormous, running into the tens of thousands. So not only do the Government’s environmental plans depend on colleges somehow, training, re-training and upskilling tomorrow’s workforce to fulfil the ambition of this green revolution, so does the economy. By providing local people with the right skills, the earnings of this well-paid employee army is fed directly back into the national economy.

However, colleges are now at a financial crossroads. Colleges Scotland, which represents the sector, has said that for them to continue to provide the skills needed within a transformed Scotland there needs to be realistic, long-term funding in place.

The experiences gained from the delivery of skills needed for the Early Learning and Childcare blueprint are invaluable. However, they’ll be squandered if realistic funding for colleges isn’t there to ensure their estate is fit-for-purpose and they have the necessary resources to ensure the workforces of tomorrow are equipped with the relevant skills they need.

Already this year’s settlement will mean that colleges face the prospect of contraction of teaching at a time when the need for the expansion of skills provision has never been greater. A £51.9m real-terms cut does not support Ministers’ insisted mantra around a ‘skills-led recovery’.

With colleges having consistently received significantly lower funding per head than schools and universities for decades, there is a need for a financial reset in government.

Colleges as organisations hold within them the talent, experience, agility and ability to deliver the vision of a skills-led recovery and green revolution. But that will only happen if the public ambition of government is matched by actual investment in the colleges who alone can make it happen.

Anne Campbell, vice-principal (curriculum) Ayrshire College