The Budget has been and gone and the outcome was relatively benign for FE compared with previous such announcements. The stage has been set. Local area reviews will pump prime more efficiency and greater effectiveness by merging failing institutions with stronger ones. The productivity agenda will be satisfied with the creation of more technical institutions that meet local market need for skills more accurately; and by new National Colleges. Competition for students will be bolstered by the academisation of more schools; new specialist technical institutes and the resurgence of apprenticeships as a valuable route to career success, aided and abetted by the introduction of the new levy (tax) on larger employers. It does feel like a coherent agenda but there are some large missings from it. And perhaps the largest missing is a clear description of FE’s new purpose without which it will be difficult to raise the motivation of a depressed workforce.

FE arguably has a new and clear mission. To tackle the UK’s productivity crisis through delivering the skills local businesses’ want and need through apprenticeship and the co-production of skills acquisition with local and national employers. To do this the sector needs a new breed of leaders with the skills to manage complexity; challenge power wherever it reveals itself and build staff confidence and belief in what FE is actually all about. In an interdependent world what does great leadership look like? How should the new breed of FE leaders approach building a new exciting mission and vision from merged institutions? Where are the ideas that will generate the tools for departmental leaders to use in getting the engagement that is the fuel for high performance? Is the ‘education case’ now enough to really deliver what the new FE needs to deliver?

The fact is that too much of the current leadership of our FE Colleges are bureaucratic stewards and not energising entrepreneurial leaders capable of inspiring followership and distributing genuine leadership across the organisation. The Government has laid before the sector the opportunity to become the answer to Britain’s productivity conundrum yet how many college leadership teams are really grasping this opportunity? Specialisation, disaggregation, and putting the employer at the heart of what they do is surely the new model for most colleges. Yet the current leadership, seeing themselves as stewards of the public purse and not much else, focus on the bureaucratic necessities and ignore the entrepreneurial opportunities. Beneath them able women and men stagger on in a sea of uncertainty about what the institution is really there to do.

This is why the government must use the local area reviews to create a sea change in what the FE sector stands for. It must not simply see them as an opportunity to cost cut. The general FE college is a 20th Century construct. The 21st Century needs productivity institutions. These new institutions need to be led by social entrepreneurs not public sector bureaucrats. Funding should be in the form of loan capital not just grants. Colleges are not there to keep NEETS off the streets. New local academies that specialise in helping young people to learn how to learn should be established. Every curriculum area should be co-located with employers. Most young people studying vocational subjects should do so inside employers as apprentices or trainees.

These new productivity institutions should be created by hybridising FE and parts of HE and creating some forced marriages between the two. This represents a challenge for the leadership teams of our local enterprise partnerships and local authorities too. And in the new merged colleges must be created new types of leaders capable of understanding how to connect different parts of the institution with each other and the outside world. For the new FE colleges are living in an ever increasingly complex world. That is why seeing the organisation as a machine to be controlled is likely to fail. Top down managerial and micro management approaches are not the way to build high performing institutions. What is needed is less managed and organic approaches where the organisation itself learns to build its adaptive capacity. This can only happen when leadership is devolved; power shared; experimentation encouraged and connections fostered. Critically it requires a sense of shared purpose which goes beyond most colleges’ stated visions. It needs something genuinely new and exciting. Defining what FE’s ‘reason to be’ is not something that can be left to Whitehall. It requires all of us to participate in the conversation.

Nick Isles is chief executive of Corporate Agenda advice consultancy

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