By Paul Grainger, Centre for Education and Work, Institute of Education, University College London

The world of Further Education is undergoing yet another period of change. A process of Area Based Reviews has looked at regional skills provision with a view to institutional rationalisation. This process has been flawed by the exclusion of school sixth forms from the process, but in some areas it has improved strategic collaboration. The introduction of the new Technical Pathway, introducing the T levels of the Sainsbury Report, will no doubt test the validity of this new spirit of regional partnership.

At UCL we have been looking at what factors help a regional skills system be effective. Further Education operates in a complex environment, which seeks to match student demand into regional employment needs. Skills requirements are a dynamic area, as regeneration replaces traditional industries and advances in technology create new sets of requirements. It is not as easy as providing a student with a qualification: the trick is to qualify a student in a way that aids transition in to work. Student demand is frequently conservative, and lags behind employment reality. No doubt demand for A levels will continue, when the new T levels may be a better bet for employment and progression.

This creates a challenge for Further Education leadership. We suggest that this may best be understood in the context of three frameworks for understanding the nature of effective collaboration for regional skill provision, particularly at the higher levels (4,5 and 6).

The first stems from the complex nature of vocational education, which involves the notion of ‘boundary crossing’: that is the ability to operate effectively in the contexts of both education and work.  Following Engestrom, this has been identified as an important aspect of vocational teaching and learning, maintaining a clear line of sight to work. The concept of crossing boundaries relates to leadership also, particularly in the present state of fluidity. Leaders in FE have to understand the nature of complex learning, of vocational pedagogies, of the economic climate in which skills needs are identified, and of the micro-political and policy world which balances funding against employer needs and student demand.

The second framework, that of a ‘skills eco-system’, assists the understanding of various complex interactions in which leaders in FE must operate.  Vocational teaching and learning is organised within a system, not just within a single organisation. It involves shared delivery and employer collaboration. A small change in one part of that system has impact throughout the whole, many of the consequences unforeseen and unintended.  The boundaries of the system are permeable, with local, regional, national and global influences and interactions.

The third model, developed from ideas generated in Harvard and MIT, relates to the nature of leadership of institutions in the wider context of economic leadership in this later phase of capitalism.  Generally referred to as ‘Altruistic Leadership’ it is concerned with the wider needs of customers, and the well-being of the system, or ecology, in which the institution is located.  Such leadership involves an understanding that an institution’s success is more likely if it is embedded in a successful system, and is less likely in a dysfunctional system.  This gives rise to a better understanding of the balance of competition and collaboration, and of the benefits to an institution that can accrue from its leaders’ participation in activities that are not of immediate benefit to the institution itself.

Some systems work. Manchester is a good example. Others don’t: and that can often be put down to poor collaboration.


Guile, D, Kersh, N and Tiris, M (2016). Enhancing SET Teaching at Level 3. Gatsby Foundation.
Engeström, Y. (2004). “New forms of learning in co-configuration work.” Journal of Workplace Learning 16(1/2): 11-21.
Hodgson, A and Spours, K (2013). “Tackling the crisis facing young people: building ‘high opportunity progression eco-systems’”. Oxford Review of Education 39 (2): 2011-2028.
Prime, J. and Salib, E. (2014) “The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders”. Harvard Business Review, May 12, 2014.

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