A season’s new growth
FETL’s collaboration with the RSA aims to cultivate optimism and support innovation and leadership of learning in FE and skills. To rise to the challenge, we must nurture what we are best at and develop it to its next stage, not invent something new
Policy churn, funding cuts and a less than unsympathetic accountability regime have resulted in a further education sector that too often styles itself as beleaguered, put-upon and misunderstood. The sector has proven itself skilful and, often, highly enterprising in adapting to reform, but it is too seldom in the driving seat of change. Skills devolution, the area review process, the push to raise the quantity and quality of apprenticeships, and the rapid advance of technology in learning all represent opportunities for the sector to move ahead of the reform curve. To do this, FE and skills must overcome its sense of victimhood and instead be optimistic, assertive and imaginative, bold enough and daring enough to seize the opportunities this still-emerging agenda offers. As FETL’s president Ruth Silver argues, we must move from a weary acceptance of public servitude to a genuine and energetic ethos of public service.
This is the theme of Possibility Thinking, a collection of thoughtful, provocative and inspirational essays jointly published by FETL and the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA). The essays pose a series of ‘What if..’ questions about the future of the sector and offer answers we hope will provoke more thought about how the sector might develop in the coming decades. The book’s launch, at the RSA on Tuesday 5 July, continued a debate developed at lively discussion sessions in Glasgow, London and Manchester about how FE and skills can become more self-determining, confident and connected with the changing world around it.
Ours is, of course, a challenging sector in which to lead. Change, for the sector, is a constant, and the pressure to deliver ever-better results in the context of ever-diminishing resources shows no sign of letting up. As former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, told guests at the launch, the country’s decision to leave the European Union will only see the challenges deepen and become more acute. Chief among these challenges, Dr Cable said, would be changing patterns of immigration, which could have ‘massive implications’ for colleges and independent training providers tasked with developing ‘at home’ skills previously provided by the migrant workforce. Economic slowdown would mean delivering on these challenges against a background of deteriorating public finances and a further squeeze on sector funding. The huge diversion of energy in Whitehall to Brexit negotiations would also have an effect, Dr Cable argued, with those providers most dependent on public funding finding it increasingly difficult to ‘make political headway’.
While politicians and civil servants put their energies into Brexit, the sector will continue to be faced with a number of major trends, as Dr Cable acknowledged, among them demographic change, with its huge implications for retirement, technological change, with its implications for employment and training, and decentralisation, which is already reshaping the political landscape and is now ‘past the point of no return’. These trends are challenging but also hold out opportunities, which the former Secretary of State felt were grounds for optimism for the sector. These included the ‘massive need’ for higher-level skills, the opportunities to ‘get ahead of the game’ in terms of learning technology, increasing specialisation in the wake of the area reviews, and the move towards decentralisation and the potential development of the ‘cities of learning’ concept, to target, in particular, the ‘precariat’.
There challenges represented opportunities, Dr Cable said, for leaders prepared to adapt and become more entrepreneurial. He encouraged the sector to focus on higher skills and second chance education for adults ‘rather than the medley of activity thrust upon it by government’. In the context of reduced immigration, the retraining and up-skilling of adults already in the workforce would become increasingly important, he said. Martin Doel, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges and the new FETL Professor of FE and Skills at University College London’s Institute of Education, agreed that the sector needed more clarity about ‘who we are, what we do and why’. FE and skills, he said, needed to invest less energy in responding to policy and focus more on what it was it was good at. A stronger sense of self would help the sector maintain a sense of purpose when buffeted by external change, he said. This sense of self, argued Sue Husband, Director of the Apprenticeship and Delivery Service at the Skills Funding Agency, needed to involve and be informed by closer partnerships with employers and communities and a willingness to look beyond the sector for the leadership talent ‘to make FE the best it can possibly be’. Apprentices, she added, needed a stronger voice in the debate on skills.
Better employer engagement was also at the top of the agenda for Adam Marshall, Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce, though he admitted that employers too needed to do more to grasp the nettle here. He also called for an end to constant change in the sector, urging ministers to make the long-awaited skills strategy ‘the last in a generation’. FE and skills, he concluded, needed a clearer vision and USP to become the destination of choice for young people starting out on their careers as well as for those looking to retrain or improve their skills.
Ruth Silver argued that the publication showed that outsiders close to the sector, who nevertheless share ‘the meta-task of public service’, seem sometimes to think better of us than we do of ourselves. She agreed with Philipa Courdingley and Paul Crisp, contributors from the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education, that the sector needed to move from its focus on ‘glossy marketing’ to honest, meaningful engagement with the communities it served. The sector would do well to stop agonising about ‘parity of esteem’ with academic outcomes, she said, stop apologising for what it isn’t and focus instead on what it does best, valuing the difference it offers. Leadership for learning, as opposed to organisational or business leadership, had been largely lost in the ‘melange of change’, Dame Ruth argued, and an important part of FETL’s work was to give space and funded time to the sector and its thinkers to reinvigorate a vision of what this leadership should look like. Innovation was too often taken to mean invention, she said, but a more useful way of thinking about it was as ‘a season’s new growth’ – organic and patiently nurtured, connected to context but focused on the future.
The call for a stronger sense of mission for the sector emerged strongly from the event, as did the need to reconceptualise leadership, rebooting leading for learning, which is what leadership in this sector needs to be all about. There were, in Sue Husband’s words, ‘reasons to be cheerful’, but there are also ‘reasons to be careful’, to quote Ruth Silver, who cited concerns about the ‘inner world of some of the leadership of the sector’ as they undertake their role. The panellists agreed that, given the scale of the change facing FE and skills, simply trying to get by would no longer be enough. While, in Vince Cable’s words, the sector is often entrepreneurial ‘by necessity’, at its best – when it is playing to its strengths and putting its learners first – it shows that it is more than capable of rising to the challenge, acting with the ‘deliberate idealism’ shown in the essays . Rather than inventing something new, that is what we need to nurture.