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Why DfE civil servants are being sent to college

DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater explains why it is sending civil servants, himself included, to college

Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater on the FE immersion programme for civil servants

A vital part of being a civil servant is being user-centred – listening to user needs, understanding them and sharing what we have learnt so we can meet their needs more effectively.

To support this, in 2017, we introduced the FE Immersion Project – a three-day experience for staff so they can really get a feel for how FE colleges and providers work by shadowing teachers and senior leaders, as well as students.

The programme is run twice a year and so far over 200 of our staff have taken part – including myself. 

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Background: 'Those with influence over FE know too little about it

It is a fantastic opportunity for our staff to experience all that further education has to offer – from speaking to and observing teachers delivering training to construction apprentices, to speaking with students about their studies and career aims.

It ensures that the department keeps up to date with who is really using these services and really understands the day-to-day running of these institutions – not just the high-level challenges they face.

After all, the demands of further education colleges, apprenticeship providers and adult and community education providers can vary widely, and we’re keen to help support each provider individually with the end-to-end delivery of policy where possible.

As part of the FE Immersion Project, I visited the London South East Colleges’ Bromley campus, which has an impressive track record and a strong financial performance. And it quickly became obvious that the staff’s relentless focus on their students’ experiences and achievements were the reason for its success.

Speaking with several of the college’s staff members, I saw how committed they were to ensuring students from all ages and backgrounds received the very best education.

It was clear that the college is at the heart of the community through its links to special schools, local employers and the council.

The college uses this community network to help vulnerable and disadvantaged young adults fulfil their potential and learn a trade; this was particularly evident when I was served a delicious lunch by students with SEND at the college.

'A renewed sense of optimism'

Needless to say, the experience demonstrated the great work being done by FE colleges across the country and, in this regard, London South East College should be a shining example to many. A particular highlight for me was speaking to the college’s students about their career aspirations and how enthusiastic they were when it came to their education.

I left the college with a renewed sense of optimism on the future of FE in this country, and the vital role it plays in our society.

Clearly, the sector has faced and continues to face, financial challenges and it is important for us to help colleges like Bromley best navigate the future economic climate.

Wider strategy

The Department of Education’s "user-centred approach" is at the heart of the FE Immersion Project. It’s important to remember that the project isn’t a replacement for regular contact with providers, but rather another way in which we are reaching out and connecting with providers to work together on solutions to the problems they face.

We’re always looking for new ways to improve how we work as a department – whether it be through becoming less hierarchical, or more interconnected in the way things happen – and the immersion project is a great way for the department to seamlessly integrate, and learn from, our providers.

I want as many staff as possible at the DfE to take part in the Immersion Programme – and not just FE providers but schools, children’s services or higher education institutions – we also run a higher education and schools immersion programme – to ensure that, as a department, we have a deep insight into the work and challenges faced by providers.

I learnt so much from both the teachers and the students, not just in the context of further education, but in the context of the education landscape as a whole.

Jonathan Slater is the permanent secretary of the Department for Education. If you are an education provider that would like to get involved, please contact

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