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Managing change in an FE world

My first months working in further education, moving from the world of blue chip, glossy corporate business, are times I remember fondly, with a smattering of shock.’ The ‘shock’ a combination of cultural differences, a seeming never-ending appetite for printing stuff and frankly, not knowing what I was doing.

It’s well over ten years since I followed my ambition to chase the second career I’d often talked of having but never quite thought would happen.  I recall my first Vice Principal saying to me ‘Louise, you’ll come to understand when you’ve been around the block as many times as I have, the wheel is reinvented in education policy every ten years or so’. It seems I’ve joined him in walking around that block.

As a result, it is therefore no surprise that periodically, there’s a sense of Groundhog Day to the debates concerning how best to respond to  government direction, learner needs and market forces. What certainly remains constant are the limited resource at providers’ disposal to manage the change successfully.

Before stepping into FE, I headed up part of the change management division of a large telecoms company. I mention this because what came with the role was a large team of programme managers, project managers and process re-engineers. Our job? To successfully implement change to maximise the good bits and minimise the bad bits for customers and employees.

Yet in FE, where the change is of greater risk, complexity and dare I say importance, the human resource to introduce it successfully is often the grand sum of a bolt-on to someone’s already full day job. Perhaps the thing we are able to get around to on a Friday afternoon after an exhausting week.

The result of this, even when the initial decisions are well thought through, is change flounders at the point of implementation, with employees uncertain about what was intended, what is required of them and how they will be held to account in the new way of doing things for the good of their students.

It takes time, effort and energy to implement change successfully. When it is not done well, the hidden and not so hidden costs impact on FE providers in the quality of provision and their financial position. A new sticking plaster is layered onto the existing ones keeping us busy if not effective.

By way of an example, I’ve noticed of late a decision – which happened to be the one I walked into when I first entered FE – become an increasing point of conversation with my peers in colleges. That is whether apprenticeships are best led, delivered and supported centrally or through a devolved structure within the curriculum departments and professional support areas. Apprenticeships often presents colleges, large private providers and universities with the organisational challenge of delivering high quality in lower volume, high complexity provision.

I’m firmly of the view there isn’t any other provision in FE that’s as difficult to get right as apprenticeships; multiple internal and external stakeholders with their competing priorities, the funding landscape, the location of the apprentice, the background of the apprentice, the role shift from assessors to educators, I could go on. Yet, when it accounts for a relatively small proportion of overall provision, it doesn’t always get the attention needed and quality issues usually follow. 95% of your problem can come from 5% of your provision. Little wonder Education Secretary, the incentive to grow it further can be a long way down the To-Do List.

My years working in change management taught me something very useful and that is changing structure alone to deal with a problem is usually the first lever pulled by leaders, yet rarely the right lever to lean quite so heavily on. Well defined accountabilities, aligned with clear processes and focused performance management win out.

However, I’m willing on this occasion to stick my neck out and say where apprenticeships are concerned, it is easier to oversee the quality, compliance, growth and risk, if the provision and support infrastructure is gathered under one skilled management team, with arrangements made to source classroom-based provision where it is required, from the curriculum areas. This protects the focus on high-volume study programmes as much as it protects apprenticeship delivery. The structural change alone will not improve apprenticeship quality or increase growth. It requires policies, processes and people management that are appropriate to the requirements of this multi-faceted education provision to make it fly.

But even before that, the change management effort to take employees on the journey with the leadership team needs the right people to have the time to think and take action. Working through the planned steps of raising employee awareness of the issues we need to resolve before articulating where we want to get to before developing the new knowledge and skills needed before reviewing and revising before embedding the new ways of working. And repeat.

Whilst I don’t expect any FE provider to ever have in place the army of project personnel I was lucky enough to work with, I would urge leaders to consider the return on investment of skilled people to manage the process of change; whether it be in the earlier example of apprenticeship provision or elsewhere in the organisation. During difficult financial times in a period of significant education reform, we are at risk of adding hidden cost of failure into the system by asking overstretched operational managers to make improvements without the support needed. My VP was right about the repetition; I’m still making the business case for resourcing successful change management in FE all these years later.


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