Six months ago, I jumped into the deep end of FE when I became chief executive of the 157 Group. I admit that I spent the first few weeks trying to keep abreast of the many acronyms that seem to abound in this sector. But coming from outside, I was able to begin studying the challenges and opportunities facing our members – 31 of the largest colleges across the country – in a new way.
Some say that the challenges our sector faces are great: budget constraints, a skills shortage, large-scale structural reform, the sometimes perceived snobbery towards technical and professional education. There are challenges, but the opportunities are greater.
Our sector has a chance to deliver not only change but transformational change to the lives of every learner, to the wider UK economy and, at the broadest level, Britain’s place in the world by closing our productivity gap. 157 Group colleges and institutions across FE, in collaboration with others, can transform the UK economy through the delivery of high-quality technical and professional education.
Over the past six months at the 157 Group, we have tried to distil the keys to achieving this transformational change into our new strategic aims. FE must drive the creation of a ready-to -work workforce. This must be done in collaboration with employers and government so that every learner has the skills that they need to be employed and to start making a positive contribution as soon as they leave training. Our members excel at this; the students that they work with gain not only the technical skills they need but also real-world experience. Working with employers makes a huge difference to the student and that student’s next employer.
We cannot be shy about the impact of FE. We should never talk it down and we must always be cognizant of the economic impact of training on learners, communities, regions and the country. Higher education does well at promoting its economic impact: the return on investment for each student entering university. FE needs to be able to match that offer. The 157 Group is committed to understanding and promoting the impact of FE and, to this aim, we are planning an annual survey on employability and economic impact. We hear about the stigma of vocational training: it is absurd that this may still exist, and one way to fight it is to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of technical and professional education.
Effective leaders mean a more effective sector. We have an imperative for transformational change, especially in the context of the increased need to diversify income from the public sector, alongside opportunities from digital, devolved skills agendas, proposed institutes of technology and an ever more globalised world. To achieve it, leadership capacity must improve.
High-quality, responsive support needs to be provided to senior leaders to develop the critical skills and competencies required for leading transformational change. The 157 Group is committed to developing a solution aimed at equipping senior leaders with the skills required to deliver radical solutions to meet the changing demands and challenges of the FE sector.
My past six months in FE have given me a grounding in the challenges – now, I look forward to being a part of the solution. I’ve travelled across the country meeting our members. Their partnerships, their courses, their facilities are astounding. I’ve seen a lot of exciting things and we have more exciting things to come as we work together with others in the sector as well as government and business to deliver the skills that will change this country.
Ian Pretty is chief executive of the 157 Group