The chief executive of the Collab Group will retire at the end of August, FE Week has learned.
Ian Pretty has led the organisation since 2015, taking the helm of what was then the 157 Group following the retirement of Lynne Sedgmore.
He leaves the organisation almost unrecognisable from the one he inherited, evolving from a body representing colleges graded ‘outstanding’ to a more open organisation for “like-minded, forwarded thinking” colleges.
Within a year of joining, Pretty had completed a strategic review of the membership body and relaunched it with a new name, the Collab Group, and a new purpose – towards policy implementation rather than just influencing.
Collab currently has 23 member colleges according to its website, a number which has fluctuated over the years.
The organisation’s attention under Pretty’s leadership has been focused on supporting college commercial activities and helping its members to deliver on key priority policy areas such as apprenticeships, Institutes of Technology and, more recently, higher technical skills.
But that does not mean Pretty has not been trying to lobby for his member colleges. It is that, as he puts it, his approach has not been so public.
Pretty puts his influencing tactics at odds with others in the sector, preferring behind-the-scenes conversations rather than the more visible campaigns from organisations such as the Sixth Form Colleges Association and the Association of Colleges.
“I’ve never been a believer in running big campaigns,” he says. “My view is that you have conversations at the right levels you need to have conversations.
“So, I’ve got strong links in to Number 10 and the Treasury, I’ve got strong links at DfE. You have those conversations.”
As he reflects on his time at Collab, Pretty wants the college sector to spend less time looking inwardly at itself and concern itself more with the big issues facing the UK.
He says the sector “bases its argument in any conversation on the need to do something, as opposed to looking at the wider economic situation in the UK.
“If I look at what’s happened to colleges in the last eight years, and what might happen in the next eight years, this inward perspective needs to change.
“What I mean by that is what is the sector going to do to support the issues currently facing the UK? What we are getting from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party is that they both talk about a high-wage, high-skilled economy.
“It all sounds fantastic, we all nod along. But the rhetoric from both parties doesn’t fit the reality of what they are going to have to invest in to achieve that change.”
One of the major shifts that Pretty has witnessed in his time in FE is the move to devolve more skills powers and funding to mayoral combined authorities. He draws a parallel with Wales where, he says, colleges have “a direct line to the minister where decisions are made”.
This “fundamental shift in the power base” makes it “an interesting time” for the sector he says. “You’ve got to think very differently about who you’re having conversations with. And who the representative bodies are having conversations with.”
As he prepares to leave the sector, Pretty reflects on his work on area reviews, Institutes of Technology and the work he is doing at the moment supporting colleges with “a massive amount of issues” related to reclassification back to the public sector.
Pretty’s retirement means there are three chief executive vacancies among FE’s national representative bodies. Jane Hickie officially left her post at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers last Friday and Tom Bewick will leave the top job at the Federation of Awarding Bodies at the end of September.
FE Week contacted the Collab Group chair, LTE Group chief executive John Thornhill, but he declined to comment.