In the 26 months since Geoff Russell stepped down as chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, FE and skills has undergone much change — with more imminent. Having taken up post at Positive Outcomes independent learning provider this summer, he assesses the sector and considers whether it’s heading in the right direction.

Further education is a government-funded, yet commercially delivered sector with a public mission.

Colleges and training organisations must pay close attention to the wishes of their one customer — government.

Failure to do so is a good way to get into trouble — yet failing to ensure you are commercially-managed is another.

This delivery model presents unique challenges.

On the one hand, government is perpetually thinking of new ways to improve skills, meaning a relentless stream of changes to policy, learning priorities and funding rules.

On the other hand, the core mission has always been to provide high-quality vocational skills.

Overall, FE has been doing that very successfully for many years.

The sector needs to continue to get closer to employers and vice-versa — and less close to funding bodies

In recent years, the biggest policy challenge has been increasing the quantity and quality of apprentices to improve Britain’s economy and competitiveness.

A more recent challenge is the ‘employee ownership’ trial to put training procurement in the hands of employers, rather than government funding agencies like the one
I led.

This initiative aims to engage employers more in the design, delivery and funding of training so government-funded learning is more focused on skills employers need.

It also has the potential for better
value for taxpayers’ money. So this is good public policy, but will bring significant change.

As ever in the sector, there is a lot going on.

Yet the way the sector and government work together is a poster child for cost effective use of public funds.

Skills funding is split between colleges and private training organisations. Both are required to make a surplus on the funds they get in order to be able to invest and grow and both are penalised if they do not deliver learner achievement.

It’s a system that works — I am waiting for other public services to catch up.

Having said that, while the sector has
been successful, there are still gaps and shortages in skills and, of course, today’s skills will not be the same as the ones we need tomorrow.

So the sector needs to continue to get closer to employers and vice-versa — and less close to funding bodies. The employer ownership pilots are one way of trying to address this, as of course are apprentices, which require close working with employers.

The pilots have produced some good results, but there are still practical issues to work out.

And while apprenticeship numbers have increased significantly in recent years, around 87 per cent of employers do not use apprentices and those that do are mainly small and medium-sized enterprises.

Big companies who understand the benefits of apprentices on the shop floor need to understand that the same benefits extend to corporate HQ. Happily, an increasing number are doing just that.

Another important but difficult policy priority is young people not in education, employment or training (Neets).

Raising the school leaving age to 18 will help, and many at age 17 will pursue vocational education and training.

But when they finish, they need to be attractive to employers. And employers — who often are perfectly happy to provide them with the skills they need — want employees to have a positive attitude, a willingness to work and competence in maths and English.

There is progress here with the advent of traineeships that can lead to apprenticeships or other jobs, but there is more to do.

As ever, the sector faces a raft of challenges in carrying out its mission — but I am optimistic that it will continue to deliver and am delighted to be back in it. I hope that working with a strong provider will allow me to make a difference, even if from the opposite end of the system to my last role.