The FE Four Nations Alliance sounds a bit like an international defence pact and on one level it is.
Further Education (FE) has faced a raft of significant challenges – funding cuts, multiple policy change, structural reviews, etc – over the past 10+ years.
Naturally, this has prompted a ‘birds of a feather’ approach, with the FE sector in all four devolved nations drawing benefit from meeting to discuss common issues, future challenges and opportunities, and how best to respond to these.
The Alliance provides a useful opportunity to compare and contrast experiences, particularly as, since devolution, responses have increasingly diverged between the home nations. This has, in effect, enabled a test and learn approach, with each of the four nations looking at how their peers have responded to challenges and the impact on their systems.
What brings a dynamism to the Alliance is its rich blend of system leaders – CEOs with a track record of working beyond their organisations and senior civil servants from each of the devolved nations – who collectively explore the issues faced and where change might have the greatest impact amid the usual constraints.
Two important strands of the Alliance’s work have been the Commission on the College of the Future and the leadership peer exchange programme. The Commission reported last year with a strategic view on how the FE system needs to respond to meet the needs of a fit for purpose system in 2030.
Rather than being just food for thought, the report was a call to action with tangible recommendations. One of these is the importance of systems leadership (which the ETF’s FE Strategic Leadership programme also emphasises) and the peer exchange programme is one of the ways in which this wider systems outlook is being cultivated.
The exchanges involve a range of leaders from a participating college visiting colleges in the other nations. They are matched on the basis of sharing similar issues and a report at the end of the programme outlines the learning and recommendations for change.
Realising a preferred future means first being very clear about the context within which any change will happen, so the most recent Alliance meeting, held in Edinburgh, started with a sobering presentation by ex-minister Lord David Willetts, President of the Resolution Foundation. He outlined the implications of the looming demographic crunch and the impact this will have on public finances and on education in particular.
If funding is unlikely to come to the rescue, then sector and political leaders are going to need to look to redefine how we set about achieving the goals laid out in the College of the Future report. Not easy in a system that is so incredibly complex, but there is real scope, given sufficient political will, to simplify a range of these complexities – necessity may be the mother of invention in the challenging work of smoothing out some of the major bumps on the journey to more efficient and effective practice.
It’s important that leaders do not wait for politicians to address the issues FE faces. Change is more likely to find political weight behind it once the sector has taken the lead in identifying where it can work more effectively together, taking steps in this direction while flagging to policy makers where tweaks to the system can have greatest impact. The rich thinking within the Four Nations Alliance is a good example of this and more leaders need to pick up the system leadership mantle to take this work forward.
Unfortunately, the accountability system too often drives a ‘safe’ approach to leadership – causing leaders to focus solely on keeping their own institution afloat – and while achieving this will of course always be a core requirement, there’s a need to help raise leadership capacity so that more leaders can step up and out of their comfort zone. That will enable leaders to think and act beyond the confines of their locality by collaboratively working up sector solutions to sector problems.
The ETF aims to support the work of the College of the Future by helping to develop some of the facilitating mechanisms by which a self-improving system can start to realise the benefits of the sector working more collaboratively. One of these capacity builders will be an FE Leadership Institute designed to better enable leaders to continually develop and learn how best to respond to emergent issues. FE is not well served for data and leaders will need it to be better and stronger if they are to make better more evidence-informed decisions.
We are therefore also working with a range of partners exploring the creation of a ‘what works center’ to research, collate and curate the essential evidence base the sector sorely needs. This will in turn nourish debates within the Leadership Institute as leaders collectively establish effective ways to cut through the complexity and alight on practical – and potentially innovative – approaches that will edge us ever nearer to where the sector needs to be in 2030 and beyond.
The potential for FE to leverage its diversity with wider collaboration between colleges and governments across the four nations, with sector leaders at the forefront, gives us cause for optimism.
Director of Development & Evidence, ETF
For further information about the ETF’s support for leaders in the FE and Training sector, please visit the Leadership and Governance Programmes page on the ETF website.