Coupland to replace Berragan as IfATE chief next week

Sir Gerry Berragan’s reign at the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) will end this month as he makes way for civil service veteran Jennifer Coupland.

The incoming chief executive is a familiar face to the FE sector having worked in the Department for Education (DfE) for more than 20 years. Her application, on paper at least, to the apprenticeships quango was a no-brainer to accept.

Coupland’s first big role in the DfE was as its deputy director responsible for the early stages of traineeships development as well as raising the participation age, careers and NEET (not in education, employment, or training) policy.

In 2012 she became the deputy director of the joint DfE and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills apprenticeships unit. She held this role for three years, leading on apprenticeship reform including creating new apprenticeship trailblazers and degree apprenticeships.

She then took a break from post-16 education and stepped in as acting chief executive of the Standards and Testing Agency when its boss Claire Burton went on maternity leave from February to October 2016.

Coupland oversaw work on primary school assessment policy. The agency came under heavy scrutiny, however, after the government was forced to cancel the key stage 1 spelling, punctuation and grammar test for hundreds of thousands of pupils following the leak of the paper online.

Schools minister Nick Gibb subsequently ordered a “root-and-branch” investigation into the blunder.

After this turbulent stint Coupland became the DfE’s director of professional and technical education, a post that she has held since.

In this role she has led on the government’s reforms on technical education, mainly the development and implementation of T-levels, which will be rolled out from September 2020,  and of which the IfATE has now assumed control.

David Hughes, a former skills civil servant and now chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said his organisation has worked closely with Coupland at the DfE and knows that “she has a really good understanding of the sector”.

He added: “She has shown great leadership on the T-level programme and I’m sure that she is looking forward to getting her teeth into the challenges and opportunities in the new role.”

Mark Dawe, boss of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, is also optimistic about Coupland’s appointment. “Her speech and willingness to answer direct questions at the recent AELP autumn conference gave a strong indication that we can expect a positive step-change in the way that the institute conducts its business,” he said.

“Not surprisingly with her distinguished background in the civil service, Jennifer’s command of detail will be a major asset.”

Coupland will replace Berragan at the independent, employer-led quango. His controversial tenure at the IfATE has lasted two years.

Whether it was a lack of transparency around funding band decisions, external quality assurance charges, the speed of standard approvals or a shortage of end-point assessors, the former army man has constantly had to defend the institute’s position.

One organisation with which he has been at constant loggerheads is the AELP. Dawe said: “There is no denying that things got off to a poor start with Sir Gerry’s tenure, especially with his tendency to dismiss anybody that disagreed with him as ‘vested interests’.

“That said, his appointment of Robert Nitsch as his number two should be applauded because dialogue with the institute improved as a result. However, addressing the limited transparency around decision-making, particularly over funding bands, remains a major priority of Sir Gerry’s successor.”

John Cope, head of education and skills policy at the Confederation of British Industry, said Berragan had “shown real commitment” to implementing the apprenticeship reforms and T-levels, “so that they work for employers, students, and apprentices alike”.

He added: “Under his leadership, the IfATE has been quick to take criticism on board – especially from employers struggling to access the apprenticeship standards they need.”

Hughes and the Federation of Small Businesses declined to comment on Berragan’s departure. Neither Berragan nor Coupland was available for interview due to purdah, the period before a political election.