Geoff Russell, tennis fan and Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency, shares his ambitions for the FE sector and considers the true meaning of success...

Success – one word, but an emotive one. A concept embedded in our culture; something we instinctively admire and applaud. As individuals, as organisations and as a nation, we are constantly reminded that the objective is to succeed, to win through. We have endless measurements, markers and badges of success in every aspect of life, and day by day, from cradle to grave, we strive towards them.

Success is a magnet. How many of you watched Wimbledon recently and followed with bated breath the highs and lows of the world's great – and perhaps not so great - tennis players? In my last column I spoke of those admirable people who take part in skills competitions and awards. For them success is winning a medal after hard fought competition at the highest levels of vocational skills in the world. And we all recognise and applaud their individual success.

So as the key players in delivering the success of the FE mission, pause there for a moment if you will, and take a view across the whole FE court before calculating your first serve in the effort to win the match....

And there is the conundrum. In a free and flexible world without qualification volume targets and ring fenced budgets, how do we define success in FE? How do we even keep the score to know whether we are winning or losing?

In my view, we have to stop trying to define success centrally. Customers are the true test - the learners and employers who will tell us – when we take the time to ask - whether FE has succeeded.

And it's you at the base lines that most affect that success. It is you and your staff, at that moment of truth as you stand between a learner and an employer – reconciling their respective needs and finding the play that allows both to win - that ensure that as a nation we all win.

As skills providers you are too frequently unheralded despite the incredible successes you have had. If this is to change - and change it must if we are to thrive against the challenges of the economy - we must define and measure your success by reference to the real life outcomes delivered to your customers. And then we must celebrate the victory from the rooftops – not least that of the Treasury.

For our part we will give you a level court on which to play and succeed. The tournament is underway and the game is yours to win, with a funding system that gives you maximum flexibility to do so and equal access to the skills budget for FE colleges and training providers alike. The rules of the game are fair – it's a funding system that motivates all types of providers to engage with their employers so they delight customers. And that surely must be what we set as the goal and track customer outcomes to keep score.

And since it's customers who need to be kept happy, it must make sense to put the money in their pockets when we can (FE loans), and when we can't, fund on giving them the outcomes they need. So we are introducing an initiative, a pilot to start, but one which will rapidly extend, called Outcome Incentive Payments. This will incentivise and reward the FE sector to deliver outcomes, by introducing funding initially for job outcomes and later for an even wider range of outcomes including job progression and qualifications.

Advantage FE.

For our part, the Skills Funding Agency must stop trying to direct the game, and become much more like umpires – watching closely but not interfering; and when needed, like coaches – providing information and support, but relying on you to determine the strategy and execute it successfully. And while I am confident you will put every effort into the game, and certainly will be more successful than when we tried to direct, as in any tough competition, there will at times be failure.

So when we judge that the rules of quality and financial management are being broken and the coaching is not working, we will then make the call swiftly and mete out the penalty decisively – generally by inviting other players to take over the game.

So we must do what we can to give FE the advantage. It is already ahead of the game in the ability to apply a customer responsive approach, reacting to pricing and funding signals in a manner which other public service bodies could do well to follow. I believe the best parts of the sector are at the vanguard of public service delivery, already demonstrating they have been playing and winning in the world of local and sectoral accountability. And FE must also start to compete in the other education games, and use that advantage to help customers in schools, academies, University Technical Colleges (UTC) and universities win as well.

So with the successes of Wimbledon done and dusted, duly watched and revered around the globe, I can safely say the ball is now in your court. You the sector must succeed so our customers and UK plc can win.

Game, set, match.

Geoff Russell is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, a partner organisation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Read other FE News articles by Geoff Russell:

Nurturing the buds of ambition

Skills are the vital passport to jobs

Geoff Russell: Translating Apprenticeship interest into 'real' apprentices

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