Five more reasons to be cheerful - about skills, devolution and localism over the next 5 years

Five more reasons to be cheerful  - about skills, devolution and localism over the next 5 years

I started my teaching career in further education almost forty years ago, spending thirty years (from 1975-2005) working in the sector, including 15 years as a College Principal and 5 years as Chief Executive of learndirect. Although over the last decade I’ve worked in the private sector, I continue to play an active role in skills and economic development as a NED with two technology companies in Milton Keynes and through my role as Chair of a Local Enterprise Partnership. I’ve worked with – and for – Conservative, Labour, and Coalition governments. It is from this perspective that I predict the next 5-10 years could be the most exciting, challenging, and potentially the most creative and productive, for further education colleges and independent training providers.

Here’s why

Firstly, the long campaign to raise the status of technical, vocational and professional training is succeeding, epitomized in part by the cross party political consensus on the importance, value and prioritisation of the apprenticeship route to skills acquisition and employment. There will undoubtedly be significant issues about achieving an arbitrarily determined numerical manifesto pledge and the sector will be judged on how it responds to this.  Nonetheless there are opportunities to be seized here - a chance to use renewed interest in apprenticeships from young people, parents, employers, LEPs, and government to position providers positively in a reconfigured system. We have a chance to make it work, to make the paradigm shift in thinking and practice that is needed to forge a new understanding and appreciation of our VET system.

Secondly, the sector’s leadership is mature, confident, collaborative and outward looking – and more joined up than ever. National organisations like AELP, AoC, 157Group and NIACE must primarily fulfill their responsibilities to their members and, where appropriate, will fight for the causes that specifically affect them individually. Notwithstanding that, I experience a much greater willingness of late for the leadership of the major national bodies to work together, and in partnership with employers and LEPs, where there is common ground. Evidence of this can be found in the recent letter sent to the new Secretary of State at BIS by all the main skills and employer organisations. In this we make a collective commitment to work with each other and with government to deliver the skills settlement, using our combined educational knowledge and business experience of what works in the UK and around the world to bring about the changes needed.

Thirdly, the new government has quickly demonstrated its unequivocal ideological penchant for the devolution of power and budgets to local level – with attendant accountability for growth and economic development resting largely on the shoulders of local authorities working with their private sectors partners in LEPs, employer membership bodies, and trades unions. This presents a golden opportunity for skills providers to capitalise on their established pre-eminence with their local constituents, employers and businesses. Any lack of national profile generally for post 16 sector skills providers when compared to schools and universities, is offset by the overwhelmingly positive regard in which local colleges and providers are held in the local communities they serve.

Fourthly devolution and localism offer a significant strategic opportunity for the post 14-education system to be re-shaped for the long term - with regard to funding, operational delivery, and local business engagement. It remains to be seen whether government will be bold in its thinking on this or whether it will continue to reconfigure the sector through a prolonged series of salami sliced funding cuts, like those recently announced. I was a college principal in 1992 when the last Conservative majority government demonstrated the vision, courage and muscle to lead the sector into incorporation. As the sector comes of age, I urge current Ministers to be as reforming as their political forebearers. 

Finally - and this is something the sector should take pride in - vocational skills are no longer the forgotten third child of the educational system. FE colleges and independent training providers alike have shaken off their 'Billy no- mates' image and can demonstrate a growing track record of success. Providers and FE colleges have friends, admirers, and advocates at all levels - locally, nationally and internationally. The sector no longer has to remind the world it exists - because it's at the party and folk including the LEPs, CBI, Chambers of Commerce, and FSB want to be seen to work in partnership with it.


A version of this artice was published in FE Week see …

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Posted on: 27/06/2015