When it comes to equipping students with specialist skills to meet employer demands, colleges have long been catering to the needs of their local communities, be it brewing the perfect espresso or mastering the finer points of dog grooming.
"People often forget that a college is a business – as well as being a place of study – therefore it is in our interest from a commercial perspective to talk with local businesses and the community to find out what training needs they have," says Carolyn Leggett of Otley College, which offers courses in dog grooming, dog massaging, tree surgery, construction courses specifically for women, garden design and beekeeping. "Yes, we have taught courses that may digress from the norm. However, nine and a half times out of 10, the reason that we do this is because we are responding to the needs and requests of the community that we live in."
Other colleges are doing the same. Swansea College is, for instance, tapping into the growing popularity of Pilates, a strengthening and conditioning exercise programme developed in the early 20th century, to offer a 15-week course for budding Pilates instructors. Once the preserve of dancers and gymnasts seeking to strengthen their bodies and rehabilitate injured muscles, Pilates today is a fashionable part of the celebrity exercise regime, endorsed by the likes of Madonna, Uma Thurman and Swansea favourite Catherine Zeta-Jones. For the college, however, this isn't a fitness fad but a response to a shortage of trained instructors in Wales.
"We felt the need to offer this course because there are people out there teaching Pilates who haven't been trained properly and don't have a recognised qualification," says Swansea College lecturer Carolyn Evan-Watkins. "Pilates is a very intense exercise and works very deep muscles so the instructor must have a good understanding of anatomy and physiology."
The course has attracted a strong following among physiotherapists and fitness instructors looking to extend their knowledge base as well as housewives and students interested in setting up as instructors. The opening of a new leisure centre in Swansea has only increased the employment opportunities for the newly qualified instructors, says Evan-Watkins.
"Pilates isn't just about looking fantastic, it's about quality of life," she says. "You can have someone walk into your class bent over with back pain and within two to three years they are tall and straight and tackling the advanced classes. It's very rewarding work."
Many courses in the FE sector are developed in partnership with local businesses grappling with particular skill gaps or the demands of new legislation. The phasing out of the old analogue television signals by 2012 has, for example, created an opportunity for Deeside College in north Wales. The college has launched a new digital TV installer course to help aerial installers skill-up their workforces in order to meet demand ahead of the digital switchover: it is one of only three colleges in the whole of region to offer such a course and has attracted enquiries from across the region.
The Government's preference for standards and formalised training, particularly when it comes to that litigious area of health and safety, has also created opportunities for the FE sector. Newcastle College runs an NVQ in spectator safety, launched to help local sports and events management employers meet new National Occupational Standards.
"A change in the Security Industries Act means that all in-house stewards need to be trained to a national recognised qualification," says Tracey Forrest of Newcastle College. There is plenty of local employer demand for the qualification, given the stewarding requirements of Newcastle United football matches and the Great North Run.
Durham County Cricket Club was the first in the region to put its stewards through the programme, including 75-year-old Raymond Kelly. The course covers issues ranging from spectator movement and de-escalating conflict situations to handling accidents and emergencies. If it all seems a bit over-the-top for the sedate crowds of a county cricket ground, it's worth remembering that the 12,000 seater Riverside Ground also hosts World Cup cricket matches and music events, most recently an Elton John gig.
Kelly may still be working at the age of 75 but many septuagenarians struggle to fill their days. Pat Cattley, who runs the planning ahead course at Bedford College, says this is one of the biggest challenges of retirement. Cattley, who has an MSc in mid and later life planning, says responsible employers are increasingly aware of the need to help people plan for their retirement and send their more mature employees on the course a year or two before retirement.
"The course isn't just about financial planning," says Cattley. "It also involves psychology because retired people see their status in society sink, their relationships suffer and divorce statistics spike.
"Retirement can be a terrible shock or a marvellous sense of freedom depending on how you approach it," she adds. "You can be retired for 30 years so it's well worth investing two days to plan for it properly."
She urges her students to keep their brains active – "it is the most important organ and it doesn't age like the other ones" – by starting their own businesses or signing up for new courses. Many take her advice and find themselves back at Bedford College to study for new courses ranging from computer studies to cake making. The FE sector, it seems, has something for everyone.
Pig butchery, Northampton College
Autumn is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – and pig butchery. Last month Northampton College ran its first pig butchery course designed to help local small holders, chefs, caterers and amateur "foodies" perfect their slaughter skills. It came about as a result of the growing interest in eating locally sourced foods, popularised by the likes of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage television programmes, says Richard Curtis, catering lecturer, chef and pig rearer.
"Like a lot of people, I'm concerned about the quality and locality of food," says Curtis. "It's a movement that's been growing for a long time. People are asking more questions about where their food comes from, then they start growing their own vegetables, then the next step is chickens and then pigs."
Pigs, it seems, are among the easiest animals to keep – and economic too. "You can eat everything except the oink," says Curtis. "I can make Parma style ham, sausages, salami, black pudding –and the offal goes to the dog."
The £130 course will cover the best method for cutting up whole rare breed pigs and how to present the cuts of meat. Students will make homemade sausages and learn vacuum packing techniques.
The course fills a real need in this rural area, not only reviving the lost art of butchery at a time when more people are interested in food miles and animal welfare, but also providing some good old-fashioned fun and community spirit to offset the isolation of rural living.
The course will make use of the college's custom-built butchery department complete with sausage machines, smokers and walk-in fridges. Local pig rearer Pete Braverton has helped develop the programme while two local pigs, a Gloucestershire Old Spot and a Saddleback, will make the ultimate sacrifice.