FE Perspectives: Board of Place

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Why aren’t FE Principals on other public sector and not-for-profit boards?

I come into contact with many FE Principals/CEOs and many of them tell me that they would like to engage at board level with other organisations, usually within the public services or not-for-profit sector. The pathways for doing so are less (well) established.  This leads to the question, given the role FE plays in levelling up the socio-economic divide through learning, skills and vocational development, which also extends to the enterprise and employability space, shouldn’t boards proactively consider FE Principals for their next board vacancy?          

There has been a policy shift over the last few years that has been fairly consistent despite changes at ministerial level. That shift has been challenging the view that the FE route is somewhat inferior to choosing the path to higher education. As well as often being distinct, these are of course perfectly compatible, with many FE learners progressing to HE.         

The need to rebalance and ensure accessibility to both options, FE or HE, has been highlighted in aspects such as the Baker Clause but from numerous policy decisions and events, with perhaps the most important being the apprenticeship levy, but also the decentralisation of some powers away from Whitehall, the creation and evolution of the LEPs / Combined Authorities, regionalisation and ‘place’, Brexit and of course the pandemic.       

With the Post-16 and Skills Bill things are moving quickly and this is a priority for government, not a day goes by without some sort of reference to skills shortages and industries and sectors crying out for suitably skilled individuals but also the future changes to the UK labour market.           

Having listened to and spoken to various leaders from independent training providers to Colleges to DfE representatives, local authority leaders and housing association CEOs and employers, there is a clear momentum and willingness to try and address the skills gaps in the UK and to the levelling up agenda.        

Place and community are not just buzzwords but are intrinsic to current thinking, the Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) are a key part of bringing together employers and education and training providers, Colleges and Independent Training Providers.         

Business needs to be proactive and engage more with Colleges/ITPs and work with them, conversely Colleges/ITPs need to work more effectively and flexibly with business, otherwise they will be held to account, through the LSIPs. This is not to say that there haven’t been improvements between business and providers and there are many successes, however, much more can be done. Awarding bodies, sector bodies, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Qualifications, Ofqual, Education and Training Foundation etc need to work with the sectors to ensure that there are the right qualifications, pathways, assessments, learning in place and that those teaching and those leading within the sector have the requisite skills, experience and knowledge.    

All the above should be an integral part of any organisational strategy. Having the right skills in your own workforce is essential, though some sectors such as Housing are also keen to ensure their customers (tenants) are also suitably equipped for the new realities of the UK economy.         

So, why is it that Boards don’t reflect some of these strategic challenges? Some have argued that boards have become too preoccupied with risk, compliance, finance and regulatory requirements and have therefore focused on ensuring their boards consist of chartered accountants, HR professionals and lawyers. Diversity at board level is important in its broadest sense and ensuring there is diverse representation from the sectors that the organisation engages with, has been a forotten area.          

For example, why don’t Housing Associations or Universities, have an FE Principal on their board. These organisations may well say that the relationships are established away from the Board room and that they permeate at many different levels within the organisation. This is a valid point; however, in mitigation, we would say if universities and housing associations claim to beat the forefront of “community”, “place” and “collaborative thinking” then surely strategic representation and skills/community perspective would be valuable at board level. It is of course the tendency for boards to focus on numbers, buildings, assets and investment, this is an area of comfort, but boards are supposed to consider so much more. If housing associations for example see the deficit in skills in their workforce and customer base a key threat to the organisation realising its strategic ambitions, then should it not be addressed by a board able to represent that issue. Is commercialisation potentially getting in the way of collaborative partnering for the benefit of stakeholders who could access their development through a broader variety of ways?        

FE Principals not only bring rich understanding about education, training and skills, employer needs, community, partnerships and collaborations, but are also leaders in a heavily regulated sector, with highly complex funding. FE Principals are often engaged with their local Chambers, the LEP and regional bodies, as part of their CEO role. If a Housing Association professes strong community, place and social housing, isn’t someone who understands those areas of value to the Board? Why don’t universities have FE representation on their boards? Many universities have committed to their “place” and communities and working more collaboratively with other anchor institutions. The argument can also be made that colleges conversely should have HE and /or housing representation on their boards. Boards need to look more at collaboration, partnership and place and how this is reflected in their board membership.      

There is a need to ask these fundamental questions. Is there the diversity of thought, perspective and experience around the table to ensure the board is aligned and high performing. The time is ripe for a re-evaluation.  

Paul Aristides | Partner, Further Education and Skills

paul.aristides@gatenbysanderson.com