From education to employment


Matt Atkinson is Managing Director of FE Associates, the former Principal/CEO of Bath College and a lead facilitator on the Strategic Innovation for Skills programme.

The second line of the well-known ballad ‘What the World Needs Now is Love’ by Jackie DeShannon says, “it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”, and in the context of this think piece, the ‘it’ I am discussing is innovation.

When one thinks about the opportunities and challenges facing further education and skills providers over the short to medium term, everything points to the need for leadership thinking and practices that have innovation at the core.

Whether it is designing curriculum, developing solutions to address current difficulties in recruiting teaching staff, delivering a contemporary, tech-enhanced student experience, or working in true partnership with employers, innovation is the key to the sector rising to the challenges of the modern world.

Our sector has great leaders who have proved to be responsive, resilient and agile in their practice. Still, much of what we have experienced over the past 15 years has not required the same depth of innovative leadership practice that is needed today. Whether it was the explosion of ‘Train to Gain’ (which was essentially about mass delivery of NVQs), the implementation of the famously failed 14-19 diplomas or an over-reliance on the delivery of qualifications within rigid funding and regulatory frameworks, essentially, our leaders have been given a clear blueprint for action.

However, when you think about where we are now, we are dealing with very new and different qualification structures such as T Levels, we are trailblazing new partnerships through Local Skills Improvement Plans, and have more opportunities to design and deliver higher-level training programmes that are closely aligned to employer and economic needs. Whilst we have clear policy imperatives to work to, we don’t have the same rigid structures and frameworks to work within.

Therefore, one of the fundamental skills that we must build in our leaders, at all levels, is the ability to innovate – to take what is going on in the outside world and to think differently and creatively to position our organisations in the new world of further education and skills.

Last year, the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) commissioned FE Associates to run a pilot programme designed to build the skills and capacity of institutional leaders to develop innovative strategies and solutions to meet the requirements of the new economy, the new skills landscape and an employment market that is very different from just a few years ago. The pilot programme – Strategic Innovation for Skills – attracted leaders from further education colleges and independent training providers, and by working together through a series of residentials and online workshops, participants developed their capacity to think and lead differently. During the programme, we considered the future of work; we heard the voices of learners and employers; we embarked upon a design-thinking programme; we learnt about being ambidextrous innovators and all delegates were required to deliver a work-based project that would have an enduring impact on their organisations. On top of all the rich learning delivered by experts, delegates also benefited from coaching focused on their personal leadership development.

The programme was a great success, with delegates commenting on the benefit of collaborating with colleagues, working with coaches, developing the skills to lead change, and the insights provided that enabled them to think without the day job constraints. Overall, the programme has resulted in a group of curious and courageous sector leaders who are now thinking and leading in a way that embeds innovation into their practice.

We are now opening up the programme to a further 100 sector leaders over three cohorts, and the delivery team is excited to scale up the programme to impact even more leaders and sector organisations.

Now back to Jackie DeShannon, the fourth line of ‘What the World Needs Now is Love’ says, “not just for some, but for everyone”, and the fact is, that in the modern world of further education and skills, every leader, at every level, needs to have the capacity and confidence to embed innovation into their leadership.

For more information on the ETF’s Strategic Innovation for Skills programme, download a programme brochure from

Matt Atkinson is Managing Director of FE Associates, the former Principal/CEO of Bath College and a lead facilitator on the Strategic Innovation for Skills programme.

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