Lessons from a newcomer to further education

27 Mar 2022, 6:00

Agreeing on priorities, and working with other sectors on behalf of learners, can drive the sector forward, writes Naomi Phillips

I recently joined Learning and Work Institute as deputy chief executive. While LWI draws on a 100-year history, I’m new to the further education sector.

So, what have I learnt in the month or so since I started?

1. Speak as a collective

​Leaders are passionate and driven, but I wonder if we can work together even more effectively to make the case for change.

Complexity and competing interests are found in every sector. But, to cut through, we need to be able to agree on priorities, describe them with clarity and be ruthless in pursuing them, speaking as a collective when it matters.

Influencing government, decision makers and budget holders, is tricky. However, if we can simplify the issues and offer practical solutions together, change is certainly possible.

2. Work outside silos

I firmly believe that to maximise our chances of making a real difference to people’s lives (which is what the FE and skills sector is all about), people must be front and centre of what we do. This is about prioritising lived experience, including through co-design of programmes and fronting campaigns.

Recognising each individual as a whole person rather than a set of specific needs also means being ambitious and intentional in reaching out to other sectors.

The levelling up agenda’s focus on people and places gives an opportunity to do just that, demanding that we work outside of silos.

This is already happening with initiatives such as Learning and Work Institute’s Festival of Learning, an annual celebration of lifelong learning, or our New Futures pilots, where diverse partners, such as employers, local government, training providers and community organisations, are working together to build skills to match local labour market needs and to provide outreach, careers advice and capacity-building support.

Another example is NHS social prescribing into adult learning ̶ linking people to activities and services outside NHS services that help to address health challenges.

Let’s champion great cross-sector practice where we see it.

3. Think differently about the big issues

LWI’s charitable purpose (the advancement of adult education and the relief and prevention of unemployment and poverty) could not be more relevant to the big issues our society is grappling with.

How do we prevent people who’ve lost their jobs during the pandemic from becoming disengaged with the workforce?

How can businesses scale up their (pre)apprenticeships programmes to ensure young people from marginalised communities get a proper foot in the door?

How do the benefits of lifelong learning link to wider health outcomes, tackling inequalities worsened by Covid-19?

Answering these commits us to being prepared to do things differently.

I’m looking forward to strengthening and expanding our fantastic research and development partnerships to influence policy and practice – to get more people into learning and work that benefits individuals, families, communities and the wider economy.

4. Skills are on everyone’s mind

Whether it’s understanding the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, working with government to review employer investment in skills and the apprenticeships levy following Wednesday’s statement, or strengthening social connections, the FE sector clearly has a role in finding solutions.

This is a great time to join the efforts for recovery and renewal, and I’m excited to be part of it. 

5. Face-to-face interaction is important

And my fifth reflection is more of a personal one. Moving job, organisation and sector can feel pretty lonely. My colleagues – and all the contacts I’ve met in my first month – are kind, clever and hardworking, and so generous with sharing their time and views.

But when the Zoom meeting is over, it’s back to being alone in the same bedroom office I’ve been in throughout the pandemic. I know this will change.

But I’ve also made sure that being visible (in-person where possible) and focusing on relationships are both built into my objectives, so I can be held to account on these important aspects of leadership.

There’s plenty of technical detail to learn too, of course, but I feel sure I’m surrounded by the right people in the sector to help me.

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