November 2016
Strategic Leaders’ Forum

This month’s spotlight focusses on the new Strategic Leaders’ Forum

The new report from the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) on systems leadership and the role of attachment in the FE and skills sector asks a number of questions - but perhaps the most pertinent, at the start, is 'is this even a sector at all?’ Are not the primary tasks for different organisations too diverse to call it a sector? And what about the arbitrary distinction between FE and skills - what part of education doesn't involve skills and what part of skills/workforce development doesn't involve education?

A suggested analogy of this paradoxically holistic, yet often fragmented system, is that of an extended family with many different relatives. A more fatalist interpretation is that perhaps this family has some close siblings who have a very powerful bond, but also have to put up with cousins (whom they don't like so much) simply because they are family. If this is true, are we happy with this? I hope not.

The 38 UK local provider networks, comprised of colleges, independent training providers (ITPs), adult and community learning centres, local authorities, LEP representatives, awarding bodies and more - tend to host these 'family' gatherings in a particular region. I have attended member meetings across the UK, and it is clear that the shared interests outweigh competitive or cultural differences - but in these times of unprecedented and systemic uncertainly, like with any familial convention (national conferences are also a case in point), it is easy to end up griping about the outside world. On the south coast, we're trying something to disrupt that.

Thanks to the generous support of the Education & Training Foundation (ETF), the Sussex Council of Training Providers (SCTP) is piloting a new Strategic Leaders' Forum. 15 executive leaders from colleges, ITPs and adult & community learning providers leave their organisations for four hours every quarter, to think big about the system in which they operate. And more importantly, the system that they help to create and lead.

The purpose of the forum is to create a space for influencers to share ideas and philosophies that run through current operational and strategic thinking. It is a place to put aside any notions of a victimised sector, but one that must shape its own destiny. Between July 2016 and June 2017, we will address some of the core challenges and opportunities facing post-16 education leaders right now, but more crucially looking at what future leaders will need to prepare for - and who future leaders will need to be. The forum will commission related research, and will create blueprints for new ideas that can challenge assumptions both locally and nationally.

Local networks have a tremendous resource; everyday frontline experience and executive expertise from training providers of all shapes and sizes, working in collaboration and competition as a micro set-up of the national picture. SCTP is 30 years old this year and has just celebrated signing-up its 106th member. It’s membership now include schools, employers and universities as well as apprenticeship, traineeship and pre-employment providers representing over £500m of EFA/SFA funding. Any old processes that depend on an FE system working within a bubble are truly dead.

At the first meeting of this forum, back in July, the predictable topics were put front and centre as these are urgent and defining concerns for all providers: the levy, the skills plan, employer engagement, devolution/localism, maths & English, area reviews, ROTO/RATO, Brexit, political turmoil, IAG in schools, staffing and much more - and this was the extraordinary thing. So much more. Where do we even begin to start?

As we reached a tapered point in the open discussion, some key and unforeseen declarations emerged:

  • A successful FE & skills sector is one that talks itself up, and makes its own case.
  • There may not be consensus on who our customer is any more - the learner or the employer?
  • Leaders now must be skilled negotiators, innovators and strategists - when in the past operations, compliance and standardisation were key.
  • There is no real evidence of the impact of what wholesale change will be on the security and sustainability of UK-wide work-based learning provision.

This forum is a space to look outwards, and to support and challenge, and to be brave. Over the next few months, some key bits of work and research will emerge that will contribute to a national dialogue. A dialogue - and some active, systemic 'doing' - that is critical to the health and well-being of this remarkable family tree, and all of its branches.

Richard Freeman is Vice-Chair of the Sussex FE & Skills

Strategic Leaders’ Forum

SCTP are running a number of webinars on behalf of the ETF to book onto these webinars please visit the Course Finder Page.  

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