Dr Ann Limb CBE DL Chair of the UK Innovation Corridor

5 out of 5: Five reflections on what I’ve learned from participating in the five FED virtual round table series by Dr. Ann Limb 

Some might think FED is just a ‘talking shop’ – a range of experts gathered together to promulgate their latest research, ideas or opinions, and perorate about the state of education in contemporary Britain. They would be wrong.

There has been talking, of course, around the virtual roundtables, but there has also been much challenge and connecting, engagement and energy, reflection and re-evaluation, and above all listening and learning with and from a wide range of people from across the world who have met in the ‘neutral space’ provided under the auspices of FED.

Having taken part in FED’s last face to face 24 hour gathering at St George’s House Windsor in February 2020, just before Covid-19 changed our worlds, I’ve enjoyed participating in series 1 of the virtual round tables established to explore further the 5 starting points for discussion agreed following the Windsor event. 

5 starting points for discussion

  1. A cross sector vision for education is needed
  2. Education providers are major leaders of place in their communities
  3. Education as a key route to post Covid-19 repair
  4. An education system that incorporates best global practice is desirable
  5. An education system built on the values of equity and trust is essential.


This is what I learnt:

1. Educational vision is a necessary but not sufficient component of transformational community leadership and should be underpinned by independent governance processes

It is highly unlikely that we would find a school, further education college, adult education centre, university or any other type of educational institution in the land whose head does not champion a vision for the organisation they lead.

What was affirmed for me, from both policy and practice perspectives, by Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills and Joy Madeiros, CEO Oasis Global was the importance of establishing a vison that is ‘more than education’. Andreas Schleicher spoke of education being a ‘whole society project’. The vision of Oasis Global is one of ‘community transformation at neighbourhood level’

Vision must also be accompanied by an accountable governance mechanism which acts as independent ‘guardian’ or ‘steward’ of the vision. A vision that is shared and has been developed with staff, parents, governors, community stakeholders and the like, is a necessary first step but it is not sufficient to ensure enduring and long term cultural change that is ‘ future proofed’ against shorter term political vicissitudes. Governance frameworks should outlive the tenure of their institutional standard-bearers and must stretch beyond, and embrace, all parts of the community the organisation serves.

Transformational leaders develop a whole person, whole place vision for societal and cultural change and put in place sound governance processes that enable the vision to outlive its progenitors.

These ideas are particularly relevant in considering FED starting point 1.

2. Size, scope scale and location matter because a single educational ecosystem no longer exists – if one ever did! 

In the year in which we recognise the 150th anniversary of universal access to state funded education, generally agreed to have been made possible through William Forster’s Elementary Education Act of 1870, we find that in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we have different, interlocking, and complementary ecosystems which can either choose to work collaboratively with or in competition to each other.

The governmental policy hinterland in which education provision is situated, combined with duplicative and widely varying local and regional economic geographies, results in a complex map of educational provision – particularly across England. This is complicated further by significant variations in the range of bodies and people who hold powers, accountabilities and funding.  We have to addresses issues of the maintenance of multiple educational ecosystems together with the exercise of equitable regulation in dispersed and networked systems. 

Size, scope scale and location therefore all matter in this context.

These ideas are particularly relevant in considering FED starting point 2. 

3. Language, behaviour and culture matter as conditions of Covid-19 enable us to break free from habitual dualistic behavioural nostrums that celebrate competitive patterns of thinking and acting

Not surprisingly given that the round tables occurred during a nationwide lockdown, an underlying and overt theme of many contributors related to how to recalibrate our worlds post-pandemic – the chance to use a moment of crisis and turn it into an opportunity to reshape the narrative and reform our ways of behaving. I was fascinated to detect and connect links between the chosen discourse of contributors. 

What they spoke about and the way they chose to express their ideas often referenced the limitations of an ‘either or’ approach to problem solving. Instead, we were encouraged to embrace the creativity of a ‘both and’ way of thinking.

Prof Rafael Ramirez when commenting on planning for possible futures reminded us that ‘if you look at things in the long term, you can make a disagreement an asset not a liability’.

Joy Madeirosspoke about needing ‘to find ways of working that enhance not diminish identity’. Both these seem to me to be examples of a non-dualistic thinking and acting – an opportunity to end behaving in a manner that a friend once described to me as ‘some people only feeling alive when they are invalidating the other’

Much of the language used and the ideas expressed at the roundtables confirmed for me that language, behaviour, and culture matter.

These ideas are particularly relevant in considering FED starting point 3.

4. Collective leadership of place is as critical as individual leadership of institution.

This theme was evident in the ideas and experience of several contributors who suggested that educational leaders needed to radically rethink the purpose and place of the organisations they lead in the context of their unique local and regional setting.

Jim Knight and Natalie Day spoke about the role of universities, Lewis Cooper about the task of further education colleges, Cllr Rokhsana Fiaz about the part played by local authorities and Leora Cruddas about the contribution of schools. Strikingly all made the same claim –  that the institutions in their educational sector were anchor institutions in the communities in which they sit.

Indeed, they are – alongside NHS and care providers, the emergency services, housing associations, and the many other civic, business, voluntary, and charitable organisations which combine to create strong, safe, compassionate and inclusive communities. The image FED speakers left with me is one of lots of different and separate boats each anchored in its own niche in the harbour and each playing its own role.

What it seems to me is needed now  – to truly transform local communities and regional economies and to make a global impact –  is for the leaders of individual organisations to join up and work strategically with each other in a coalition of the willing who together bring collective leadership of place to their locality. The current UK government could encourage this in the way in which the forthcoming White Papers on Devolution and on Further Education are linked and integrated – or not!

Whether the political and policy framework will make this easier or harder for local leaders to take forward remains to be seen but as we re-define the UK’s place globally in a post-Brexit economy, impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the societal effects of BlackLivesMatter, my point still stands –  collective leadership of place is as critical as individual leadership of institutions.

This point resonates particularly with FED starting point 4.

5. Values of transparency, equity and trust must drive funding decisions and resource allocation

If any of the conditions outlined in 1-4 above are met, singly or in combination, progress will be made. Our collective challenge is to find a way to move forward on all four fronts in order to achieve lasting, positive transformation. This takes time, money, political will, leadership, and a range of other resources. However, If the crucible containing the key components of transformation is not suffused with, framed by, and held accountable to values of transparency, equity and trust, success will, sadly and inevitably, be patchy, ineffective and ephemeral. It was evident from the contributions to the FED sessions that we can all probably agree that values matter. In practice it is much harder to find ways of articulating, agreeing, and accounting for turning those values into action as measured by funding decisions and resource allocation.

This point resonates particularly with FED starting point 5.

Dr Ann Limb CBE DL, Chair of the UK Innovation Corridor reflects on the lessons she gained from participating in FED’s virtual roundtables in June 2020.

The Foundation for Education Development (FED) is dedicated to promoting a long-term vision and plan for education in England. In the spirit of partnership, we will provide a neutral space for policy influencers from education, business, politics and beyond to shape the future.

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