Questions, questions, questions as AoC chief Martin Doel prepares for life of a professor

Martin Doel has revealed plans to become the inaugural Further Education Trust for Leadership (Fetl) Professor of FE and Skills in the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education (IoE). He outlines the kind of issues he wants to be looking at.

The first task of leadership is to impart direction and define purpose — what then is the distinctive purpose and direction of institutions delivering FE? What does the term FE mean? Should skills follow FE like a horse and carriage in the phrase ‘FE and skills’?

As the Fetl Professor of FE and Skills in the UCL Institute of Education, these are some of the questions that I’m hoping to have the opportunity to explore and discuss. They’re the type of questions that, against the litany of day-to-day challenges, are often neglected.

Colleges, independent learning providers, adult learning providers and employer providers have proven themselves remarkably adept at surviving whatever is thrown their way

Further questions might be — how do autonomous institutions make themselves properly accountable to those they serve? If improved skills are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to improve productivity, what are the other elements required and how do these elements interact with skills provision? What should be the balance between broad education and focused training, especially for young people? How do leaders of FE institutions contribute to leadership of ‘place’ with other agencies and local partners? How can collaboration co-exist with competition in the world of FE and skills as it does in other areas of business? How do we sustain and build further an entrepreneurial spirit in FE colleges and providers that is reconciled with the requirement for accountability for public funds?

But do those questions, and those being addressed by the Fetl fellows that I’m looking forward to working with, actually matter? After all, colleges, independent learning providers, adult learning providers and employer providers have proven themselves remarkably adept at surviving whatever is thrown their way.

In my opinion, they do matter. Unreflective action might achieve temporary respite, but it’s not the behaviour of a mature and autonomous sector. A sign of maturity is a secure sense of ‘self’ and a wish to be self-determining. These are indicators of underlying confidence that in turn inspire confidence in staff, students and in those that fund education and training, whether employers or in government.

Working with colleagues at the Institute of Education, Fetl fellows and friends and colleagues across the sector, I hope to find answers to the questions or at least form better questions — as you can see I’m already beginning to make the transition to being an academic. I think also that we should have the humility to learn from others who are engaged in addressing the same type of questions — providers in other educational sectors, in commerce, in other countries both near (we have our own experiment ongoing in the UK as the FE and skills systems in each of the nations diverge but retain very similar cultural roots) and far, in local government and in the voluntary sector.

In the meantime, there’s a day job to do at AoC until September when I will take up my full responsibilities at the IoE.

While beginning to think about more and even better questions and while working with Fetl fellows, there will more than enough to do in supporting colleges through area reviews, in making full sense of the spending review, in contributing to policy that enables colleges to deliver their full share of 3m high quality apprenticeships, in ensuring that colleges are at the centre of the rejuvenation of higher technical and professional education and in making sure that the achievements of colleges and their students are properly acknowledged and recognised. In fact, it’s business as usual.

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