Restructuring yet again looms large in further education in the UK. Luckily, the sector has long been accustomed to reacting, adapting and changing shape in response to shifting policy landscapes.
Across the UK, skills devolution continues apace, with local authorities and City Deal leaders looking to their peers elsewhere for lessons to learn and steps to avoid.
As the flow of area reviews spreads across England, it’s heartening that FE and skills has become a focal point of governmental activity, for British FE merits this visibility at the centre of the educational system.
I’ve been heartened by the reforms happening already in Scotland, where I worked on the Glasgow colleges post-merger curriculum review, then chaired the higher education Commission on Widening Access, set up by first minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Challenging reforms have taken place throughout the FE sector, encouraging new networks and partnerships in service to their local economies and citizens.
From what I have witnessed, many are over the teething stages and are beginning to show some real progress and newness in handling the changed policy agenda they are faced with. England’s leaders can learn a great deal from the experiences of cutting-edge leaders across Scotland.
Innovating for the future does not, and should not, happen in isolation. It is vitally important to take stock of the changing reality of policy in order to ask what can be done differently to ensure the future relevance, success and sustainability of our FE institutions. Further, exercises in pausing and thinking about the leadership that is shaping the sector must not be narrow nor limited to our immediate surroundings.
Up and down the country, college principals, local business leaders and learning professionals are seeking advice from those area reviews that have already reported. This cross-border and cross-region learning is of enormous value. The Skills Commission’s Leading Innovation in Further Education and Skills inquiry, funded by the Further Education Trust for Leadership, has been tasked with identifying innovative FE shifts as reforms and devolution edge nearer.
In pursuing this, we now look to the future and will consider and report on how the sector can alter and adapt to a world in which the relationship between providers, employers and the state is changing.
I believe that the challenges we face in England have had an early start north of the border. The initial teething phase is settling: they now know a thing or two. We look to Scotland with a number of questions in mind. What lessons can the rest of the UK learn from the Scotland-wide transformation of the post-16 education landscape?
Since 2010, the number of FE colleges in Scotland has reduced from 37 to 20. With area reviews seeking to rationalise England’s FE offer and reduce college numbers to create a regionally focused system, who better to learn from than those practitioners in Scotland who have been there and done that?
By bringing our colleagues in England together with leaders from across Scotland – from FE colleges, alternative providers, government and employers – we hope to be exposed to the innovations already taking place, whether in response to devolution, a need for improvement or core policy concerns.
More than this, we hope to look beyond immediate surroundings, to learn from leaders the length and breadth of the UK. In providing the space to do so, I hope we make this challenge an enriching one to tackle. After all, it’s what we’re there for.
Dame Ruth Silver is president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership and co-chair of the Skills Commission