Nick Isles, Director, Corporate Agenda

The long awaited Industrial Strategy White Paper has finally been published. And it makes good reading. There is a strong emphasis on backing winning sectors with winning general purpose technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning and green energy. And there is a renewed focus on people and skills, re-announcing the Government’s commitment to building a world class technical education sector through better, more employer relevant curricula; an expansion of quality and higher level apprenticeships and a new National Retraining scheme for digital luddites like me already in the workplace. And of course a focus on maths and STEM with a large(ish) £400 million set aside for this work.

Perhaps most gratifying is the commitment to get R&D investment up to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 (around the OECD average). Our failure to invest as a country is one of the reasons we have such low levels of productivity (even though it is rumoured that the Chancellor Philip Hammond is somewhat sceptical about the productivity figures themselves). But that as they say, is another story.

However investment levels isn’t the only reason for our shocking productivity statistics. (Reminder: it takes German and French workers only four days to produce what a British worker takes five days to produce). Skills is another. And skills has long been jealously guarded as the domain of FE. For it is FE Colleges that traditionally deliver the vast majority of vocational education – at least up to level 4. That is now supposed to change as the new Institutes of Technology, and the other initiatives announced in the Industrial Strategy urge FE institutions to ‘go large’ and deliver more higher level skills in partnership with Universities, local enterprise partnerships, employers and anyone else who happens to be passing by and fancies joining in. (I made that last bit up by the way).

Will this work? I fear that the answer at the moment is probably not. And the reason why is due to the quality and focus of the current leadership of many of our colleges. There are notable exceptions, but as a whole we need to focus on developing and driving a leadership revolution in our FE institutions.

In my new e-book, "The 7 Steps to Frontier Leadership", co-authored with Adrian Spurrell and Freddie Guilmard of the Red Thread Partnership, I argue that leaders now need to be Frontier leaders paying far more attention to the external environment, understanding their beliefs and the beliefs of the organisations they run and then understanding how their behaviours affect the mediation of those beliefs in the working life of the institution. Being able to answer the question ‘what is our reason to be?’ is one of the critical first steps in developing the right approaches to managing the fast-changing external operating environment.

Our FE Colleges face a crisis of belief. What are they for? The answer lies in saying they are about skills, skills and more skills. Their role is to nurture craftsmanship and the best way to do that is to have employers at the very heart of all they do. Yet this isn’t what is found in far too many FE Colleges. Yes, one or two departments may have great relationships with, say, a cluster of engineering companies or construction firms, but the educationalists who lead these institutions too often do not genuinely put the employer at the heart of what they do. Too often the apprenticeship provision for example is seen as second class or fringe activity to the main purpose of being….well….like a school delivering classroom based activity. Work experience gained through the wrongly titled ‘study programme’ is of little value for too many students in our colleges. What is required is a commitment that it is the employer that the College serves as a first order priority and we need leaders of our FE Colleges who are comfortable in dealing with employers, are anxious to engage and experiment and see their role as getting their students into meaningful careers and not simply gaining a piece of paper called a qualification that has too often been of negligible labour market value and little educational value too. Perhaps we should call those who attend our colleges something other than students. Perhaps we should see them all as trainees or apprentices.

In order to achieve the goal of leading the skills sector to deliver on the promises of the Industrial Strategy we need to nurture and grow a whole new generation of FE leaders. The government are putting aside monies to train up existing staff to teach better but we also need a new leadership development programme for FE that is world class and that has a global outlook. For when the world is being turned upside down doing the same thing with the same people in the same way is bound to end in failure. And that is something we can all ill afford.

Nick Isles, Director, Corporate Agenda

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