Scripting the future – exploring potential strategic leadership responses to the marketization of English FE and vocational provision

This is an important paper which FETL is delighted to publish, in partnership with the Association of Colleges and the Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) at Oxford University. It has a number of important messages about the complex realities with which further education leaders must now deal, but it is also steeped in a sense of where further education colleges have come from and the pressures and policies which have brought us to our present, perhaps uniquely challenging state.

More than 20 years ago, Helena Kennedy wrote in her influential report Learning Works that justice and equity must ‘have their claim upon the arguments for educational growth’ in further education alongside the demands of employers and the needs of the economy. Her report warned that increased competition in the further education sector was likely to mean colleges pursuing students who had the best chance of success and neglecting those whose needs were greatest.

Two decades on, Kennedy’s warnings look prescient indeed. We have entered an era of unprecedented marketisation in the further education sector. As Professor Keep explains, FE colleges and independent training providers now operate in a set of ‘inter-connected markets’ though they do not do this in an unfettered way, for the government still requires colleges to fulfil part of their social purpose mission by providing ‘remedial’ education and acting as ‘provider of last resort’. This creates a challenge for leaders who must somehow find a way to operate successfully in this new – and for some quite alien – environment, while remaining true to their values and striving to meet the needs of their community. And all of this they must manage in an incredibly tough financial environment, buffered by profound and ongoing policy turbulence and an overbearing accountability regime which has proven stubbornly resistant to reform.

Professor Keep’s paper demonstrates not only the unprecedented nature of these challenges – a ‘perfect storm’, he says – but also the inadequate base of knowledge on which leaders can draw in responding to them. Change in the sector is so abrupt and so constant that we struggle to develop the theoretical understandings we need to make practical sense of change. There is a serious mismatch between the challenges we face as a sector and the skills and resources available to us, particularly in leadership terms. This paper is an attempt to redress this. It asks important questions about how leaders can deliver against their social and political mandate, and fulfill their role at the heart of their communities as fully and effectively as possible, within this highly competitive marketised environment.

Further education has always had a strong sense of social purpose. It is part of the origin story of the sector. The Kennedy report detected a serious erosion of this tradition. Two decades on, it is clear that while many providers would still put social justice high on their list of organizational priorities, the economic imperative is much stronger than the ethical or social imperative in the work of further education. As Professor Keep acknowledges, FE is not helped by the failure of government to articulate a clear vision for the sector’s future or to be clear or consistent in its own thinking about markets, their purpose and their limitations. The future shape of further education is as clear as the likely outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Professor Keep’s contribution is important and timely. Whether or not you accept his thesis in its entirety, there is no doubting the scale of the challenges further education faces, and the need for fresh, new thinking in enabling our leaders to rise to them.

Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership

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