The FE and skills sector has never been more in need of clear-minded leadership and focus. Ayub Khan outlines how Fetl hopes to help develop such thinking.

There is no doubt that the FE & skills sector has reacted and to some extent adapted to the changes required of it by government.

Its strength in delivering basic skills — A-Levels, NVQs, foundation degrees, diplomas, apprenticeships, work-based training, and personal and community learning — is admirable.

I can testify to the good work of the sector having been a learner in FE after leaving school many years ago.

Yet for all of the wonderful things that the sector has delivered it is still poorly defined and understood.

It’s strength can be seen through its workforce, the practitioners who everyday serve its learners in all types of settings as well as its leadership that focuses on the daily pressures, navigating through each policy change and interpreting every page of the latest funding guidance. That’s is part of the sector’s DNA.

Yet there is something different required in the change the sector now needs.

The sector needs leadership that is able to look beyond the current crisis that engulfs it.

Thinking as a critical dimension of leadership too often gets squeezed out by the pressures of day to day management and delivery

In particular for FE colleges, the anxiety of focusing on area reviews means that the conversation will predictably lead to structures, jobs and funding. Yes, this is a difficult time, but it has always been so.

There are opportunities on the horizon if practitioners and leaders in FE and skills take time to reflect, think and be creative in response to the challenges the sector faces.

Thinking as a critical dimension of leadership too often gets squeezed out by the pressures of day to day management and delivery.

We need to support present and future leaders to think beyond immediate priorities and practice in order to shape the future — this is not just a place we are going to, it is a place we are actively making.

The sector has a chance to do this and there are opportunities to shape the future.

Take one example, Fetl fellowships. The programme offers a unique chance for practitioners and leaders to pursue a research interest that benefits FE and skills in the UK.

Fellowships take at least six months to complete, during which time fellows will be supported by a prestigious higher education research institution to develop work that will support change in the FE and skills sector.

The first cohort of Fetl fellows will publish their research at the Association of Colleges conference on Wednesday (November 18).

Applications are now open for the next round and the deadline is November 30. Fetl is not prescriptive on themes. This is about generating ideas to help shape the future.

There are also opportunities through the Fetl grant programme to help the sector think about its future. So far we have funded seven projects ranging from innovation in governance to identifying new leaders in the sector.

The research through these projects will provide another valuable source of evidence of what works and what could be applied to the sector.

There is no doubt that in times of austerity, the importance of organisations and individuals working together to make changes and meet the challenges  ahead cannot and should not be underestimated.

Simply getting through the current crisis and carrying on as before will not be acceptable to learners, employers and the sector.

Yet the truth is, that despite the current difficulties, there is a new prize on the horizon. The prize that awaits the sector is one where we have true autonomy, institutions and providers working collegiately, yes inevitably leaner but so much more fit for purpose serving learners and helping employers.

A sector that is served by strong research and evidence and therefore better informed and understood by policy makers and individuals.

FE and skills needs a new vision and a new narrative to secure its place in the future.

To do this requires an environment where the leadership of thinking is second nature.

The opportunities through the Fetl fellowship and grant programmes will help.