Geoff Russell, Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency, welcomes the new Innovation Code, the jewel in the crown of the Skills Investment Statement.

Perhaps you tried it, the ‘Can you Crack it’ challenge which fired the imagination of many wannabe spies recently? You may have seen that in an interesting break from tradition, GCHQ invited those who could crack a code-breaking game to apply for a career in espionage. It lacked the romance of a furtive meeting in an Oxbridge college quad, reported the media, but secret service chiefs knew it was the way to recruit the spies of the future.

I have to admit I missed the deadline, so I won’t be decamping to GCHQ – not this time around anyway. But I’m delighted to say we have perhaps FE’s very own equivalent, the enigmatically named, ‘Innovation Code’ to unravel.  It really is the jewel in the crown of the Skills Investment Statement. I’m pleased to say that the Skills Funding Agency will be introducing this over the coming months – more on that shortly.

Setting the scene - you’ll have heard me say it before - if we are to become the skilled nation of growth to boost our recovery, it's the fresh shoots of innovation and entrepreneurship that we need to recognise and cultivate. A green and vibrant landscape of innovation is the Government’s vision; fertile and flourishing to ensure the UK becomes a world leader in innovation. Behind this is the belief that by increasing incentives to innovate, more people will sow the life-changing initiatives which will reap a harvest of future growth.  This is true for any part of the economy; in FE the trick is to stimulate the demand by employers and learners developing and taking part in entrepreneurial learning.

The past month has seen the publication of two key documents for the sector. The first is the Further Education and Skills Reform Plan, which sets out the Government’s overall strategy for further education and skills for the remainder of this Parliament. Accompanying this plan is the Skills Investment Statement, which sets out the adult further education and skills budget for the 2012-13 financial year.  Both documents underline the Government’s commitment to engage with communities, rebalance the economy and support the building of a Bigger Society; they also very much reflect the broader ethos that innovation, entrepreneurship and new business start-ups are key to driving economic recovery.

There is a whole range of initiatives too in the Government’s new Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth, including piloting a new innovation voucher scheme delivered by the Technology Strategy Board that will give employers the opportunity to get free academic support from colleges and universities.

Yet isn’t it so often the case that less money leads to greater creativity and innovation?  So isn’t it time to change the FE agenda, change the FE story, change the FE record?  I want to redefine the relationships the Agency has with colleges and providers to allow innovation, freedom, flexibility and responsiveness. This is something I know you will welcome.

Take Richmond Adult Community College for example, who are passionate about the creativity and innovation agenda.  Since the recession hit they have been responding to unprecedented student demand from people seeking the skills to become self-employed or start or improve their business.  Initially the College felt they had hit a brick wall when they tried to get Government funding as the relevant recognised FE qualifications were all designed for young people.

But undaunted they turned to the Skills Funding Agency for support and together we were able to develop a recognised qualification framework and curriculum.  The College was able to secure funding through the Collaboration and Shared Services Fund which encourages innovative ways of working, showing that, in an era of restricted budgets, it is vital for the sector to be creative and entrepreneurial.  And now their Enterprise Agenda for Adults is well and truly on the map.

And so back once again to the Innovation Code – I like to think of it as a green light for facilitating something genuinely different for our customers.  Essentially it will enable colleges and training organisations to draw down funding whilst they are actually still developing the programme and qualifications. On the understanding, of course, that the qualification has been designed in partnership with a business, with a commitment to time limited funding.   

And that the qualification has passed all the quality and rigour tests so will graduate successfully onto the Qualifications and Credit Framework. This way, employers are free to decide what they need, shop for it, pay for it and then seek any subsidy they may be eligible for. I am confident the concept will radically change how employers can feel they own the skills agenda and how responsive providers can be to employers too.

So I welcome the Innovation Code as a fresh new dimension to the vision for the FE Sector, where the new FE freedoms; the new FE outcome focus; the new FE accountabilities and the New FE business models hold court.

As the year comes to a close, I’d like to wish you season’s greetings for a restful interlude from your labours.  And I will leave you with a Winston Churchill quotation to ring in your ears during the festive season, Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse”.

Geoff Russell is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, a partner organisation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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