Ayub Khan looks at what lessons can be learned from a new collection of essays imagining different futures for the sector.
Area reviews and skills devolution will mean fundamental changes to the structure and organisation of FE and skills in England.
Structure and organisation are important, of course. But without strong, intelligent leadership the best structures and organisations can fail.
That is what FETL was set up to support.
Over the past two years, we have given leaders time and resources to think widely and imaginatively, through our programmes of grants and fellowships.
The creation of a FETL professorship in FE and skills at University College London’s Institute of Education is another, wholly unique, opportunity to help the sector build the intellectual muscle it needs.
We now want to take our work a step further, using what we have learned to commission creative and collaborative spaces for thinking.
The first fruit of this new approach is Possibility Thinking, a collection of essays imagining different futures for the sector, published jointly with the RSA.
A number of themes emerge from this fascinating and far-sighted collection of new thinking.
The first concerns the need to develop a clear mission for FE and skills that can be readily understood, by students, staff, employers, policymakers and communities.
As Philippa Cordingley and Paul Crisp of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education argue in their contribution, the sector should be forthright in describing its strengths, but also honest about its weaknesses.
It needs to think imaginatively about how to get better at what it does well, and develop a clear sense of purpose and place around those things.
If we cannot be clear about what it is we are best at, potential partners and funders are unlikely to be either.
The second main theme is that leaders in the sector must be bold and engage purposefully with new agendas and new partners.
They must become, in the words of the RSA’s Anthony Painter, ‘agitators for change’.
The influx of public money into the sector has been welcome, but it has come with conditions.
Sector leaders have little time or space to think about anything other than the latest inspection, policy demand or change to the funding rules. In many cases, they also lack the inclination to do so.
That must change. Sector leaders can no longer afford to keep their heads down, preoccupied by changes required by ministers or using the threat of inspection to enforce a bruising top-down management culture on staff.
Paul Little, principal of City of Glasgow College, describes how a positive attitude to change in college leadership can have a transformative effect on FE’s position in local education ecologies.
This is important. Skills devolution represents an opportunity for FE and skills to play a fuller role in shaping the future prosperity and cohesion of our cities and regions.
But to make the most of these opportunities we must grow the sector’s ability to effect positive change in itself.
The final theme I want to highlight is creativity.
Constant organisational change is a major distraction
As Pauline Tambling, chief executive of Creative and Cultural Skills argues, versatility, curiosity, creativity and a willingness to learn are now essential expectations in the changing world of work, and that applies as much to sector leaders as it does to our students.
This is a challenge, I realise.
Constant organisational change is a major distraction and stringent accountability requirements create a climate of anxiety inimical to creativity.
The government must do more to ensure reform does not get in the way of a thoughtful, creative approach to teaching and learning.
However, as leaders such as Paul Little demonstrate, it is possible to engage in a creative way with the drivers of change, redefining a provider’s role in a changing landscape to deliver better outcomes for students.
We hope Possibility Thinking, which is set to be unveiled on July 5, will inspire and support leaders in becoming creative agents of professional and policy change.