A college education

  By UNIT-e   - Monday 09 July 2018

Earlier this year I was pleased to host my first FE National Conference where well over 100 colleagues from colleges all over the country came to debate the key issues facing FE today and hear from a wide array of speakers including the DfE, UCAS, JISC, HESA and the ESFA (does education have more acronyms than any other sector?). It really was a wonderful event and you can read my review and reflections here.

We were very lucky to have some truly inspirational speakers join us to give their own views on a range of issues and how they were addressing them at their institutions. I knew when I heard these presentations that I wanted to find out more, so I was delighted that two of the speakers were gracious enough to invite me over to learn more about what they do to make the colleges they work in more successful.

A technology-enabled vision of the future

The first person I visited was Robin Ghurbhurun, CEO and Principal of Richmond upon Thames College. At our conference, Robin gave a great presentation about his vision for a college where technology is all pervasive and why technology should be a priority for every college leadership team, which followed on from his Tes article on this topic. Some of Robin’s content and further thoughts on this topic have also appeared in this useful white paper

Robin took me through his vision for the college – which is very impressive, not just in terms of the technology that students and educationalists will work with at RuTC, but also his plans for a completely new campus, that will effectively be rebuilt in stages. He walked me through the RuTC 2016-2020 strategic development plan covering the ‘6 Ss’: Students, Staff, Stakeholders, Skills, Systems and Sites, and how they were meeting the challenges and addressing the goals that were set within it.

Data-driven insights

Most interesting to me (as a relative newcomer to the FE sector) was his explanation of how he used data every day to keep his finger on the pulse of what is happening at the college, and how a series of KPIs and the questions that arose from looking at them each week in conjunction with the college leadership team helps them know, and not guess what is happening and where they might need to move the ‘hand on the tiller’ to steer a more effective course for the college.

Immersing myself in CAFRE life

I also had the pleasure of visiting Karl Redmond, MIS Enhancement Manager, at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) on the outskirts of Belfast. Although the college has had our UNIT-e solution for over 10 years, they have recently decided to make their use of data a priority to help them on their journey towards further improvement. Karl delivered an outstanding presentation at the FE Conference on how CAFRE have used UNIT-e to develop their online course applications and payment processes, which has transformed student registrations and has greatly assisted delivery planning. I was eager to see this up close and meet some of the staff from the college and learn how the CAFRE worked.

flower bed

A floral welcome to CAFRE

Karl organised a full day of meetings for me and my colleague, Product Manager Natasha Marsh, to learn how they use UNIT-e and where they want to go next. Looking back at my three pages of notes now, I can see we met 15 CAFRE staff in different sessions to cover their use of data in the three main sectors of their college activity: Education (agriculture, horticulture, floristry etc); Industry Training (e.g. crop spraying, sheep dipping, tractor driving -!); and Knowledge Transfer (a programme of sharing learning amongst agri-business that involves over 10,000 individuals). We were taken to see the quad-bike and tractor driving course that was being run for 13-15-year olds. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to have a go!

‘Cow-culating’ the benefits

Just before our return to the airport, we were taken to the multi-million-pound dairy centre where students learn to undertake dairy farming and where farmers from all over the province come to keep up to date with best practices.This really was a state-of-the-art facility – complete with robot cow shed cleaners! As the cows enter they are weighed, their pedometers are checked (each cow has a bovine equivalent of a Fitbit!) and they measure the milk collected. All this and more results in key metrics measured and stored for each cow and, consequently, the effectiveness of the whole heard. They didn’t need me to point out they probably have more data on their cows than on their students!


The future of farming: CAFRE's robotic cow shed populated with cows complete with their fitbits

The central role of data

I’m really pleased to have met both Robin and Karl and all the staff at CAFRE, not only to help me understand further education better but also to see how having a clear vision and a plan for the use of data is central to the role of successful college administration and management.

Graham Cooper is Head of Education at Education Software Solutions. Prior to joining ESS, Graham spent 13 years in teaching. This is where he first became passionate about the impact of management information systems on student achievement.