When Julie Nugent left the Education and Skills Funding Agency and went to work at a large further education college in Birmingham, she found it a shock to the system.
She’d spent years carefully crafting White Papers and policy documents, imagining college principals sharing them with their staff – and quickly realised that no one had even read them.
“It was a bit of a rude awakening, going out into the sector,” she laughs, “but probably the best training I've ever had. It’s the difference between the rhetoric and policies of what you want FE to do, and then the reality of how you deliver this on the ground.
"Moving from the civil service to a college setting was the best kind of apprenticeship I could ever have had. It was the best kind of apprenticeship I could ever have.”
The lessons Nugent learned from her “apprenticeship” in the FE sector continue to be a great foundation for her role as the director of skills and productivity at the West Midlands Combined Authority.
Through all the skills policy and initiatives introduced by the WMCA, Nugent has a clear focus: is this deliverable? And what impact will it have on the community? It’s a way of thinking that is, perhaps, a little different to other policy development.
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Nugent was born in Sparkhill, Birmingham, and her parents were both Irish immigrants. She says their background has been really important to her throughout her life. Her “happy go lucky” father was a factory worker, and her “quietly ambitious” mother had various jobs: from an estate agent to running a charity that worked with homeless people.
Choosing FE college over sixth form
She says she gets a lot from both of them: they were both determined, and preached the value of hard work and persistence. Having left Ireland for economic reasons, they both truly valued work – and even when Nugent was studying a PhD, they questioned if it would lead to a better, higher-paid job.
Nugent went to a local primary school – and aged 10, she was determined to pass the 11-plus and get a place at King Edward VI grammar school in Kings Heath. She says it was entirely her own decision, and it wasn’t one born out of a belief that it was superior education, but because it was competitive, and she wanted to prove she was good enough to get in.
As an academic teenager, she thrived at the grammar school – and her teachers were shocked when, aged 16, she said she wanted to go to the local FE college instead of stay on at the sixth form.
"It did raise a few eyebrows but I went to what was then Matthew Boulton College, and I had the time of my life. A real political awakening,” she says.
“I mixed with lots of different people from different backgrounds. We had political groups and societies, and our lecturers really challenged us to think differently about contemporary issues. I absolutely loved it. It was incredibly liberating, and, for me, it demonstrates that when FE gets it right, it gets it right better than anywhere else.”
After studying politics, English and history at college, Nugent went on to study English literature at the University of Manchester. She happily admits that she chose the university for the city, the nightlife on offer – and initially, she struggled. She says it was less intellectually challenging, and with a less diverse mix of people.
“I found university a much more homogenising place. I was the daughter of Irish immigrants, a Brummie, the first generation in the family to go to university, but I felt really out of place – under pressure to ditch the working class element of my culture to fit in," she says.
"For me, FE is a much more inclusive space – it allows people to bring themselves and to be themselves and to be confident in themselves."
Getting the skills bug
As a student in Manchester, Nugent didn’t really consider what she might go on to do – and says that too often, there was talk about academia and rigour and less about careers and money. For those from advantaged backgrounds who went into the city to work, it wasn’t an issue, she says – but for those who are less well-off, who invested their time and money, talking specifically about the career pathways, and what the degree would lead to, was crucial.
And so, without another career in mind, Nugent stayed on at university, completing a master's at the University of Birmingham, and a PhD at Staffordshire University. It was during her PhD that Nugent first experienced teaching, returning to her old college, Matthew Boulton, to lecture.
Although she really enjoyed teaching, particularly access students and adult learners, Nugent says she thinks it takes a very special person to be a great teacher – and she didn’t have the patience. But she’d been bitten by the skills bug, and a range of roles across the skills landscape followed.
Nugent worked as the head of strategic business development at the Wolverhampton Chamber of Commerce, Training and Enterprise, as well as having leadership roles in strategy, funding and planning at the Learning and Skills Council. In those roles, Nugent harnessed the power of locality and really came into her own.
“It was very much about, what are the issues and what are we going to do to solve them? It was everything from wanting to attract more investment to the area, to dealing with really high rates of unemployment, teenage pregnancy, regeneration packages,” she says.
“Skills was at the heart of our inward investment pitches, and our work to regenerate local communities. I really learned about putting skills at the heart of economic development, and the importance of letting people do what they need to do locally, to empower people in their area, and not driving it from the top.”
The difference between policy in government, and policy on the ground
In 2008, Nugent moved to the top of the chain, and went to work at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as the deputy director, FE and performance, and then at the Education and Skills Funding Agency as director of funding and allocations. Her youngest daughter was just two years old, and she commuted every day from Birmingham.
Her time in government was incredibly useful in learning how everything works, but was frustrating, too.
When I worked in the civil service, I would be much more interested in ‘how will that actually work on the ground?'," she says.
“I see a lot of good policy that falls over at implementation stage. There is great ambition, and lots of good ideas, but the detail of how things work in practice is glossed over. And that’s exacerbated by the current silo thinking we have within and across government departments. Interventions are developed as a range of products – T levels, traineeships, apprenticeships, SBWAs, bootcamps, entitlements – rather than understanding what an individual or an economy might need and cohering around that instead."
Four years after joining, Nugent left the civil service and went to work for a college, Birmingham Metropolitan, as its commercial director. There, she saw how all the White Papers and policy documents she’d worked on in the department were interpreted on the ground.
It was an eye-opening experience for Nugent, and one that has shaped her approach in her current role as director of skills and productivity at WMCA.
“We talk about co-designing with the sector, and we think that's what the government misses out on a lot. Our assumption is that the FE sector is always ready to respond. So for us, if we want new provision, if we want more work with employers, let’s start by talking to the sector and understanding what might be the risks or barriers involved. Let’s work with the sector to understand those risks, let's try and mitigate them.” she says.
"Colleges and providers are businesses and they need to stay afloat. That’s the position we need to start with, by recognising their challenges and making sure our funding system enables the right responses.
“The majority of people in FE believe in the transformative power of skills. We get it. But we expect the sector to operate in a commercial environment, so we need to make sure that we drive and enable those responses. For me, that is getting into the detail of implementation. Understanding what will work on the ground.”
Addressing youth unemployment
Going forward, there is much work to be done, especially on youth unemployment. “There is a huge issue for us around helping those kids that need it most – the young unemployed, the young kids who are NEET [not in education, employment or training] and are at risk of becoming unemployed. No one at the moment is really wrapping their arms around them and making sure support is in the right place. The scale of the current challenge is huge. It needs new action and support from all of us – national, regional and local government, employers, colleges and providers. No one organisation can do it on their own – and we owe our young people a much more targeted and joined-up response," she says.
“Our big push would be around careers – ideally, devolve it out to mayoral combined authorities so that it can be part of an integrated employment and skills response. Particularly now, it’s absolutely imperative that we support our economies and communities to recover and grow – that means making sure that we get the right kind of training and support in place. We need to be much more creative and targeted in our approach. Skills will be key to our recovery – but we need to challenge ourselves to be more agile and targeted in how we do this."
Nugent and her team are also doing a huge amount of work on apprenticeships, and particularly getting underrepresented groups, particularly black and minority ethic females, to access the opportunities available to them. And, of course, there’s the mountain of work around adult up-skilling and retraining as the area recovers from the pandemic. It’s a huge task – and, as a leader, Nugent says she wants it all done tomorrow.
“I'm very driven and have a reputation for being impatient. I want everything done yesterday, and if it can't be yesterday, then can it at least be tomorrow,” she laughs. “I am honest with people, hopefully caring and always accessible. I like to have fun at work. I spend a lot of hours working, so I hope working with me is a challenge. I can be like Marmite, I suspect: I think people either really love it, or think, ‘Oh my God, who is that woman?’”
Who is Julie Nugent? Well, she’s the one determined to improve the skills, and, as a result, the lives of thousands across the West Midlands – and she won’t take no for an answer.