A Moment of Optimism: How Innovation in FE Can Solve the Post-Brexit Skills-Crisis

A Moment of Optimism: How Innovation in FE Can Solve the Post-Brexit Skills-Crisis

By Dan Wright, CEO of The Chartered Institution for Further Education


This is an important moment for further education. On March 29th 2019, after forty-five years of membership, Britain will leave the European Union. It is the kind of change that happens once in a generation; decisions made over the following months will impact on the students we serve for decades.   

Since 2016’s referendum, Brexit has dominated the discussion in Westminster and will continue to do so. Already we are seeing changes in the policies – and promises – made by both of the main political parties.

There is, of course, uncertainty; much of the detail remains unknown. The country faces a significant skills-shortage, across many sectors. FE will lose funding sources such as the European Social Fund. The recruitment, and long-term retention, of teachers who are equipped to deliver excellent learning remains a critical issue.

But there is also optimism and renewed purpose within the sector; reframing threats as opportunities. Due to forward-thinking approaches already in place, many colleges and providers, find themselves positioned for further success. Under innovative leadership, they are adapting to create strategies and solutions; looking forward not back. Post-Brexit FE has the potential to be financially sustainable, more inclusive and to deliver better futures for our communities. This is an unprecedented opportunity for growth; a chance to build on existing best-practice to develop a further education offer that is world-class.

Here are some examples of innovative leadership among our Members which is transforming education – and life – for the individuals we serve:

By targeting key sectors:

Perhaps the most significant threat facing Britain’s employers, and economy, is the increasing deficit of skills in the national workforce. In the early 2000s, cheap international travel and relatively high rates of employment led to large numbers of skilled EU nationals migrating into the UK. The economy is built on their contribution and, as their departure becomes inevitable, the need to replace them will be felt across all of sectors of business and industry. There are already notable shortages reported in Construction, Engineering, IT, Health and Care, and the list is growing. FE colleges and providers will need to attract new students to these sectors in order to provide a workforce which can boost the economy and ensure that Britain retains its position as a global competitor.

By developing basic and specialist skills:

It is estimated that around nine million British adults lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, and the employment – and life – opportunities that they provide. This is no longer sustainable. To successfully stand alone on the world-stage, Britain will be relying on high-quality FE provision to equip the workforce with both basic and specialist skills. Innovative curriculums, accessible pathways and – most importantly – excellent teaching and learning will be necessary to support learners (especially those with negative formative experiences) to participate in education and realise their potential.

East Riding College is the first College in Yorkshire to gain chartered status and is committed to its role as a leader in the economic and social development of the region. Principal and Chief Executive Mike Welsh is proud of the College’s “high quality teaching and learning, governance and engagement with the local community and employers”. Clear pathways to university and employment are designed specifically for the local community. To meet the needs of an ageing population and the increasing demands on the health and care sector, the College works with community partners including the NHS, local GPs and health care providers to develop (and keep) specialist skills within the region, through the Bridlington Medical, Health and Social Care Academy. The Academy provides mentoring, seminars and specialist skill development for students of all ages.  

Each year, five thousand young people and adult learners, from entry to postgraduate levels, are enrolled onto a comprehensive range of courses at the College. It offers the chance to gain skills at all levels and is one of the top performing FE Colleges for high level GCSE results in both English and maths. Inclusive, enterprising and ambitious, the College is thriving.

By promoting alternative pathways:

FE institutions, courses and qualifications often suffer the detrimental impact of a perceived lack of status; the public do not yet understand the importance of our role in society. Much has been done, in recent years, to focus on higher education and increase university placement numbers. But this is not relevant to the thirty-five percent of people who left school without five ‘good’ GCSEs; who do not qualify for degree-level placements. To solve the skills shortage, acknowledgement is needed that the existing system is often inadequately designed to meet their needs. The profile of non-academic qualifications and non-traditional career pathways requires championing. In a skills-rich Britain, prospective students will see FE as a viable mainstream pathway; a choice, not a last-reserve.

Established in 1862, Dudley College of Technology presents the epitome of ambition and aspiration in technical pathways. Dudley’s mission is “to deliver outstanding technical and professional learning, which develops skills, raises aspirations and changes lives.” The College has had a profound effect on the local economy, with fifty-two percent of their apprentices studying in LEP transformational sectors. The high-value skills students learn here lead to a range of exciting and sustainable career pathways.  In the words of Lowell Williams, Chief Executive Officer, Dudley College of Technology and Chair of the Board of Dudley Academies Trust: “Dudley is an example of how the FE sector can drive change with the very best providers now leading the way in providing the higher technical training our economy is demanding.”  

By engaging with employers:

In addition to skills shortages in the national workforce, a significant concern for FE leaders is staffing, particularly in subjects where specialist practical experience is essential. It is increasingly challenging to recruit and retain experienced, passionate and committed teaching staff. Turnover rates continue to rise, with teachers citing high workload and low pay as reasons to leave the profession. As jobs in industry become more available, and more desirable, teacher shortages (particularly in STEM subjects) look set to increase. Our most valuable resource is the people who understand these sectors. The challenge of recruiting experienced industry veterans, to the task of developing the next generation of workers, is a complex one.

Pioneering training providers understand that engaging employers, and building reciprocal relationships with them, is essential to creating sustainable pathways into industry jobs and successful careers (then back again, teaching others the skills to do the same). Hawk Training (a Chartered Institution for Further Education member based in London), works in strategic partnership with employers to create tailored support packages which meet their strategy, skills and staffing needs. They support businesses with apprentice recruitment, upskilling existing talent, managing the levy, and in-house training in a reciprocally rewarding network which includes a wide range of employers and the CMI. It is this kind of visionary approach that will transform the sector and recruit the calibre of tutors and support staff our learners deserve.  

By leading the change:

The immediate, and long-term, effects of Brexit present significant challenges for leaders of the FE community but, as the examples mentioned demonstrate, we are equipped and positioned to succeed. In seizing this opportunity for growth, FE leaders and employers can work together to build a sustainable system that the rest of Europe will look up to. An influx of skilled, empowered and ambitious workers will not only boost our economy but could also redress the imbalances of opportunity which led to the extreme levels of disenfranchisement we witnessed during the referendum.

Colleges and providers of FE, with the support of this Institution and others, will lead a systematic change in Britain’s education system; working with employers to develop excellent practice in the sectors which need it most. We will continue to innovate from within, learning from each other’s success and harnessing our collective agency to lead the change that is coming.   

This is an important moment for further education; we are ready.

Posted on 15th June by