Geoff Russell is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency

Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, has his sleeves rolled up for the months ahead.

2012.  A leap year; Chinese Year of the Water Dragon and designated year of the famous mathematician, computer pioneer and code-breaker Turing.  Long-anticipated year of the London Olympics.  Yes, 2012 is officially off the starting blocks.

And it’s business as usual at the Agency.

With the flurry of observations around my departure done and dusted, all at the Skills Funding Agency are back to the day job, sleeves rolled up, keeping the wheels of FE oiled and rolling.  There’s much to do in the engine room, so please be assured I shall continue to adjust the levers for the rest of the academic year.

By July, it will have been nigh on three and a half years since I took on the LSC role that then led to this, my job as head of the Skills Funding Agency.  Of course I only intended to do the LSC job for the year until it was closed, but I found working with Agency colleagues and what we do in the sector very rewarding and never cease to be impressed with your enthusiasm, professionalism and dedication.

FE and the Skills Funding Agency are in a good place. The Agency strong and stable to perform its new job of promoting and funding FE colleges and other training organisations; the FE sector ready to meet its mission of equipping England with the skills and values it needs to overcome economic and social challenges.  So overall, fit for purpose I’d say, with FE’s funding wheels turning reassuringly smoothly at the hands of professional, knowledgeable people. While you, the real experts in the sector, drive FE on its vital journey to make skills work for England.

So despite the financial, economic and social challenges, all is reasonably well and perhaps surprisingly, there lies ahead a period of some stability for the sector, which I know you will welcome.

Since the publication of the Skills Investment Statement we have been busy considering how the Agency will make the SIS a reality and March will see publication of our Implementation Plan which will put flesh on the policy bones. April will see the exciting launch of the National Careers Service, a significant milestone in this Government’s commitment to ensuring that everyone has access to the best quality advice on education and skills to progress in work and life. More on that next month.  February sees an activity-packed fifth annual National Apprenticeship Week – there is a ‘Hub’ of resources that can be used to help you support the Week which I understand can be accessed here.  And later this year will be the beginning of something both crucial and remarkable - the inaugural Skills Show 2012, following firmly in the legacy footsteps of WorldSkills London 2011.

Of course one of the greatest achievements in the sector has been the increase in the number of Apprenticeships.  My colleague Simon Waugh, who as you know has also announced his retirement, deserves due credit for this. More than 440,000 learners started an Apprenticeship in academic year 2010/11, an increase of around 50% on the previous year. By the end of this Parliament we'll have supported you to create 250,000 more Apprenticeships than would have been created under previous plans and developed Apprenticeships as a route into higher learning.  Of course the great majority of Apprenticeship provision is without issue.  But you will also know that quantity needs to go hand in hand with quality and the rapid increase that has taken place naturally puts pressure on standards. So working with the National Apprenticeship Service we are reviewing every short duration Apprenticeship programme to ensure that we fully understand the delivery model and can make a judgement on whether the provision meets the comprehensive standards established for Apprenticeships.

For my part, I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of establishing the Skills Funding Agency and re-shaping it to meet the needs of the further education sector. But most of all I’ve enjoyed meeting and working with so many of you.  It has also been a pleasure to work under a Minister whose passion is further education and skills.

You will sense that I am proud of the pivotal role that the Skills Funding Agency is playing and you are right.  Whilst there is a way to go, we have begun to establish the incentives and accountabilities to assist the sector to respond creatively, flexibly and dynamically to the outcomes demanded by employers, learners and communities.  But I’m confident that approach is well and truly carved into the FE landscape now and that you are on track to continue it.

So together let’s get on with the job in hand and keep the FE machine well and truly on the road to making skills work for England.

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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