The future of FE as we know it is going through a considerable transition.

The ‘more for less agenda’ has seen colleges merging, re-structuring and losing staff to drive through financial objectives in the hope this will end the year with a surplus whilst maintaining quality and improving outcomes for learners. Uncertainty over government strategic objectives has led to many key figures across the sector speaking out about the motives behind many of the changes and planned initiatives.

FE remains at the core of our workforce development and over the coming years it will it need to adapt to these challenges if it is to remain a valued progression route for learners.

So if we had a crystal ball to determine how these changes will begin to shape the sector, how will it illuminate some of the future skills and aptitudes required and how this mindset will continue to adapt over the coming years? With leadership development playing a central role in building capacity in teams to tackle the challenges that lie ahead, we will see a sector move away from a vertical ‘command and control’ style and embrace a more horizontal ‘distributive’, ‘discursive’ and perhaps sometimes ‘disruptive’ leadership approach.

Other government agencies that work closely in the sector are not immune to these challenges and are going through a similar transition; Ofsted’s position will change considerably over the coming years as it moves toward embracing a truly ‘common’ inspection framework that could see them inspecting up to an additional  4,000 training providers. The Skills Funding Agency and Education Funding Agency are also undergoing transition as talks of the two merging have been published widely.

These challenges indicate just how much the sector has changed over the years and perhaps how the current business model is in fact, no longer fit for purpose given the emerging financial, political and socio-economic factors. If this is the case then we may be looking at cultural shift in how the sector continues to serve its learners, employers and other stakeholders.

The outcomes from the FE Commissioner’s Annual Report have highlighted some keys areas for development, of which financial health, leadership and governance are key.Area reviews have now begun to reduce the number of colleges so that those that are ‘more resilient’ can emerge as offering greater flexibility and responsiveness to learners and employers over the coming years.  What will come through the recommendations that follow will shape the sector and its future workforce. Many providers left after this process has concluded will be taking a closer look at how they manage their cash flow, how they plan and deliver curriculum cost effectively and how they can reduce the burden on back office activities. Devolution will see institutions serving a far broader customer base than they do currently and their capacity to drive a more customer focused service will be of paramount importance in the coming years.  

What is becoming clear is a growing need for greater commercial acumen. Generating alternative income and revenue streams, together with delivering a more coherent curriculum that clearly reflects the demands of the community will become second nature in this new era of providers. This will, in turn drive a more agile and responsive leadership mindset; one that recognises the emerging trend in how teams and individuals are key in this process.

Whatever their strategy and forecasting tells them, attracting and retaining talented staff who have this mindset will enable colleges to continue to grow and succeed. By also investing in and nurturing capacity and capability of middle managers they can also assure that these future leaders have the skills and aptitudes to lead both today and in five to ten years’ time.

The challenges that lie ahead will be good for the sector. Just as private businesses have had to respond to complex challenges around them that are not in their control, so must FE. Whilst much of the government agenda proves disconcerting at times, there remains a clear need for the industry relevant qualifications. Future leaders must posses the skills and aptitude to shape and influence those around them to become more resilient to current and future challenges they face.

Tim Evans is the Director of Lean4Learning Ltd. supporting efficiency savings in the FE sector

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