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Fostering links with a view to the way forward

A recent article in this paper suggested that "the sector risked sleepwalking into a brave new world" (FE Focus, June 19) and asked how many providers and local authorities have thought through the tougher questions posed by the machinery of government changes ahead.

The position for the further education sector might not be quite as doom- laden as Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a-Changin'", but there is no doubt that it can seem that "the wheel's still in spin". There is the problem with capital to deal with, limits on Train to Gain funding, and the machinery of government changes now in the transitional phase. And we need to work in partnership and promote economic recovery.

However, leaders in the sector are not standing in the doorway or blocking up the hall. We are asking questions, and lending a hand as we find the solutions. In particular. we are working with local authorities to ensure all the changes ahead do not impact negatively on learners and their families. And there is plenty of good practice out there.

Many colleges are actively sharing expertise with local councils and working across boundaries to promote a shared vision for the way forward. Hull College is working with East Riding and Hull City councils to ensure best practice is not lost. St Helens College on Merseyside has been instrumental in ensuring all are prepared for the emerging new arrangements; and most colleges are working with 14-19 partnerships to shape the provision of the future.

Colleges are also making sure that the focus on local and national objectives continues. West Nottinghamshire College's sponsorship of an academy has strengthened relationships with the authority and given officers and elected members a greater understanding of what the college offers. The closer working relationship between York College and the local authority has resulted in an innovative and successful programme to cater for young people who are not in education, employment or training.

Colleges have even provided FE experts for the sub-regional groups and local authorities in an area. The expert from the seven colleges in Warwickshire and Coventry has worked to raise understanding of the process of funding transfer and has had a significant influence on planning. It is agreed that this role has been valuable in testing assumptions about what will and won't work and avoiding mistakes.

This good practice is not limited to colleges. New protocols have been developed for the work of training providers with local government and directors of children's services. Training providers, colleges and local authorities understand that the chance won't come again to build partnerships during the early stages of change.

These examples demonstrate the way we are working with the fading order and preparing for the new.

An article from the Harvard Business Review ("Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis") asks: "Are you waiting for things to return to normal in your organisation? Sorry. Leadership will require new skills tailored to an environment of urgency, high stakes, and uncertainty, even after the current economic crisis is over."

It appears FE leaders are ahead of the game. The sector is already "fostering adaptation", "embracing disequilibrium" and "promoting leadership" at all levels. And it's happening across the country.

Alison Birkinshaw, Chair, FE Reputation Strategy Group and principal of York College.

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