Colleges will prosper with a commercial approach

by Kate Green, Head of Business Development at the 157 Group


This piece originally appeared in TES on 27 May 2016, read the full editorial at


In a recent TES editorial, Ann Mroz prompted us to consider what makes a great leader ( The question was focused on the challenge of developing future school leaders, but it’s also a very pertinent question in the context of the level of change in Further Education right now.

Numerous studies have explored this issue over the years and have highlighted a number of significant attributes for successful leadership – vision and strategic thinking, the ability to grasp complexity, innovation, and effective people management and distributed leadership. Previous research undertaken by the 157 Group and partners equally put the spotlight on a range of attributes – including resilience, self-awareness, political skills and a systemic mind-set to name a view – required within teams and across organisations for effective leadership.

However, the current scale and pace of change within the Further Education sector, driven by funding reductions, Area Based Reviews and apprenticeship reform, is giving rise to a growing recognition that a further set of leadership skills and attributes are required to successfully lead and grow organisations into the future. This is not to say that the attributes above are no longer needed. They are. But they are needed alongside strong capabilities in other key areas.

Commercial colleges?, the recent report by the Gazelle Colleges Group and Wickland Westcott, provides a valuable analysis of the implications of the profound changes taking place on the sector, its leadership and its capacity to change. And as the name suggests, the report concludes that colleges need to adopt more commercial approaches to survive and prosper.

We wholeheartedly agree and for us this means a number of things with respect to the skills required of future sector leaders, many of which resonate with the Gazelle/Wickland Westcott findings. It means the application of commercial financial skills to diversify income, generate efficiencies and effectively manage the top and bottom line. It means proficient risk assessment and management. It means effective system leadership, across institutions and sectors, building relationships with key partners. And it means developing entrepreneurial capabilities, enabling innovation and continuously striving to improve. No mean feat, but remember these are the skills required by the leadership team, not a single figurehead at the apex of the organisation.

Through our conversations in the sector, it would seem there is a growing consensus about the ‘what’ that is required and many would agree with the leadership skills set out above. The harder question is to determine how these skills can be effectively developed in leaders and leadership teams.

Whilst there is undoubtedly still a place for online and face-to-face workshop approaches, we feel that the core of any future leadership development activities will need to be experiential learning, i.e. learning through doing, through secondments, mentoring or project-based activity. Whilst these are logistically harder to organise, they provide maximum benefit through exposure to new ways of thinking and behaving, even more so if they are undertaken outside of the FE sector.

One answer may be to seek individuals who have already acquired a commercial skills set and the recruitment of senior managers and leaders from the private and non-education sectors is a trend AELP and the 157 Group have explored in a FETL-supported project.

We also need to ask how these same commercial skills can be nurtured in managers throughout the organisation to ensure a sustainable pipeline of talent with the necessary set of (evolving) skills. And how can colleges and training providers be convinced to invest in the development of these leadership skills, given all the other draws on their pressured finances?

These are the big questions that the 157 Group, together with AELP, Pearson and other partners, are keen to explore. Sector leadership development needs to be re-designed to ensure that leaders are best equipped with the necessary skills to lead the scale and pace of transformation required. Let’s put our partnership working skills to the test and do this together.

Colleges will prosper with a commercial approach

Apprenticeships vs University – apprentice Matthew Morrish’s story

by 157 Group’s Leeds City College

Matthew Morrish studies the Level 3 Business Services Marketing Apprenticeship at Leeds City College. After realising that university wasn’t suited to his learning style, he wrote this article about his experiences on his apprenticeship and the advantages it has given him in life. 

Throughout my childhood and school life, I had one mission – to go to university. It was the one and only thing in the world I wanted to do and I thought by doing so it would make me stand out as one of the best academics, hopefully, brightening my future in the process.

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Upon completion of my A Levels, I began my next chapter at university, studying an Integrated Masters in Geological Sciences – a subject I knew I had no real long term future in; but a subject I felt passionate about and wanted to take to the next level. A fool proof and perfect plan right? No. Excessive university fees; a completely unmanageable schedule; and the social barrier problems associated with a ‘stay at home’ student. All these problems and many more contributed to making me a very unhappy chappy and I started questioning my reasons for choosing the university path.

By the end of December, I’d completely had enough of the situation and took the decision to conclude my studies and leave. Some said I backed out before I’d settled in, some even said I’d left because I couldn’t handle the work and was failing, but, my reasons for leaving were simple – it just wasn’t for me. On reflection, I was incredibly naïve (as a majority of us are at that age) and I should have looked at other avenues such as apprenticeships prior to applying for university.

I am now well under way with my apprenticeship at Academic Appointments and I’m absolutely loving my time here. As an apprentice, there’s tons of scope for opportunity and the day to day jobs I am tasked with are incredibly engaging and exciting. My role is more orientated around digital marketing, taking control of the ‘Google AdWords’ and ‘Analytics’ Accounts – both I find absolutely fascinating! I never thought I’d enjoy a job based around analytics and reporting, but it is through Academic Appointments I have found my passion. Job satisfaction is so important and it’s safe to say I am way more than satisfied here.

My course has two different sides to it: 1. the theory and knowledge based around what marketing is and how it works, and 2. the physical ‘on the job’ skills. I have an assessor from Leeds City College come and visit me once a month to track my progress and help and support me when need be, as well as give me all my course work!

University didn’t provide me with much. Would I get a good job at the end of it? Would I have wasted 4 years studying when I could have been building a career? Would I be able to pay back my enormous debt? Would it be worth it? Now compare that to a full time job working for a highly ambitious and successful company; a shorter 12-24 month course paid for completely by Academic Appointments (with the option for progression on to the next level); absolutely zero debt; and the continuous scope of opportunity down the line. We’re the definition of a growing business and it’s fantastic to be playing such an important part in that. We don’t just place teachers into schools here, we change young learners’ education for the better and that’s something I feel very humbled to be a part of.

Moving from Geological Sciences to marketing is quite a crazy change, but it’s a change that I am thrilled to have made. I am now looking forward to developing my career here at Academic Appointments. The future looks bright!

Apprenticeships vs University – apprentice Matthew Morrish’s story

We can make London’s skills sector our oyster

This article first appeared in TES on 8 April 2016
By Andy Forbes, Principal of The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London, writing on behalf of the 157 Group


As a relative newcomer to working in London, I’m wide-eyed with admiration for the daily miracle that is Transport for London. Waving my Oyster card like a magic wand, I can do short or long-hop journeys, skip from underground to overground, jump from train to bus, assisted by clear signs, maps and apps. It’s not perfect by any means, but it works remarkably well considering the size and complexity of the capital.

If only London had something similar for skills. The Greater London Authority’s draft Skills Vision for London is rightly ambitious, aspiring to “a world-class skills system that…prepares Londoners for life and work in a global city”. To achieve this, we surely need a step-change in coordination and integration. We need an Oyster strategy.

Currently we have a jungle, not a system. Schools, FE colleges, universities, private trainers and employers operate separately, with little coordination. While London has many world-class schools, colleges and universities, their combined impact is constantly undermined by the scattergun of individual agendas.

Devolution brings a historic opportunity – if it can be grasped – for something much better: a skills for London system with strong neighbourhood institutions offering basic employability skills – up to GCSE level – to youngsters and adults. A system that coordinates efforts at advanced and higher levels around key specialist skills needed for growth – digital, construction, finance, creative industries, life sciences. A system that forges a strong technical and professional education pathway – built around apprenticeships and related courses – as a high quality alternative to the traditional A-level and university route to success.

London has unique features that make this possible. It is compact, with millions of people inside the M25. It’s easy to imagine a small network of – for example – specialist engineering skills centres serving the whole of London, rather like we have specialist hospitals for heart surgery. The labour market contains a high proportion of graduate-level jobs, reflecting the role of the City and the number of large corporate HQs in and around it. So it’s well placed to support progression pathways in key occupational sectors leading from entry up to postgraduate level.

London is a regional, national and global hub. A successful skills system would have a wider impact, for example in leveraging expertise and capacity along the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor.

To achieve this vision, I believe that London should borrow unashamedly from the best features of TfL; the ability to move easily from one mode of transport to another. For skills, it should be a system where students can move to and from schools, sixth forms, FE colleges, apprenticeships and universities at different stages in their journey. We should have clear maps and route planning. This means a comprehensive and well-signposted independent careers advice service across the city.

Like the Oyster card payment system, there should be a simple, unified, customer-friendly system for adults and employers to use loans or grants to pay for training.

There must be continuous upgrades and improvements: a London-wide investment strategy for developing the network of skills provision.

The new London mayor will have a full in-tray. But when contemplating skills, at least there’s a tried and trusted approach to hand. If schools, colleges and universities are the pearls of skills wisdom, then surely they need an Oyster to help them sparkle even more.

We can make London’s skills sector our oyster

Middlesbrough College Joins 157 Group

by Middlesbrough College

Middlesbrough College has been selected to join the 157 Group – a forward thinking membership organisation which is transforming the UK economy through the delivery of high-quality technical and professional education.

It’s a real coup and will see the college play a key role in helping shape future policies including FE sector funding.

Zoe Lewis, principal and chief executive, said: “We are delighted to be selected to join the 157 Group. It’s recognition of the high quality training we provide and we look forward to working in collaboration with like-minded colleges to create a network of excellence across the country to support employers with their training needs.”

MC_logo_Colour Cap Full Colour

Middlesbrough College is already changing the economic landscape in the Tees Valley by providing world class training for people of all ages, at all levels.

In addition to offering courses in almost every sector area and at every level, from entry level up to post graduate, the college is working with more than 1,000 apprentices and higher apprentices and is looking at ways it can support employers with the apprenticeship levy.

The college is also working with hundreds of businesses and partner organisations across a range of sectors and continually reviews and refines its offer to ensure students achieve their goals – an impressive 94% of students progressed to employment, Higher Education or enrolled in another FE course at Middlesbrough College upon completion of their programme.

Zoe said: “More than 2200 of the college’s full time students take part in a work experience programme each year – far higher than the norm in the FE sector – and the college has created a wide range of facilities on the campus to enrich the learning experience.”

Facilities include a replicated ward environment for health and care students and a professional training restaurant for hospitality and catering students which is further boosted by a partnership with Michelin-starred chef Frances Atkins. The college has state-of-the-art engineering workshops and an operational construction site.

More than £100m has been invested in the burgeoning campus, which also includes a ground-breaking £20m STEM Centre (science, technology, engineering and maths) which was designed by local industry, built by local industry, for local industry.

An advisory board including more than 50 local employers provided the college with a real understanding of what industry needs and the STEM Centre is delivering the kind of training that provides real experience.

Zoe said: “It’s just one example of how Middlesbrough College pushes the boundaries to continue to deliver the very highest levels of training and service for local employers and students.

“We are also one of the few colleges in the country that offers full time training and education to students aged 14 to 16 in our MC Academy and our independent sixth form centre MC6 offers a range of A Levels and is now offering a series of combined A Level and vocational courses in health and care and engineering.

“We also have one of the best teachers in the world in the shape of science teacher Dr Richard Spencer – a finalist in the Global Teacher Prize.”

In addition Middlesbrough College was the first FE college in the country to hold both the BIG (Bullying Intervention Group) Award in FE and in the workplace, and was the first college in the North East to be awarded the British Dyslexia Association Kite Mark.

The college has also been awarded Investors in People Gold status for the third time and is proud to hold the Equalities North East Gold Standard Award.

Ian Pretty, CEO of 157 Group, said “Middlesbrough College embodies the 157 Group mission; it is employer facing, it is entrepreneurial and it has a deep commitment to improving the employment prospects of its learners. Middlesbrough College gives the 157 Group a presence in the North East, they have shown they are dedicated to their community and their region, investing in the most disengaged young people to improve their life chances through the MC Academy and shifting their offer to meet local economic needs which enhance their region’s economic competitiveness. They work with over 1000 employers and have over 1000 apprentices and have exciting plans for the years ahead. We can’t wait to get started working with them.

Membership of the 157 Group is now 31 full members and 2 corporate partners. With the addition of Middlesbrough College we now have a presence in the North East meaning our network stretches across every region of the UK with partnership from business as well. We are a strong voice for our members and the FE sector as we seek to transform the UK economy through the delivery of high quality technical and professional education.”

Middlesbrough College Joins 157 Group

Creating a Commercially Minded FE Sector

sympIan Pretty spoke at the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL)  Parliamentary Symposium on Creating a More Commercially Minded FE and Skills Sector on 10 March 2016


by Ian Pretty, CEO

Not for the first time, the UK FE and skills landscape is undergoing dramatic and transformative change. In the drive to answer the challenge of low UK productivity and plugging the skills gap, there is much talk within the sector about institution mergers and consolidation. Driving these conversations is a mix of public funding cuts and the ongoing Area Based Reviews of the skills offer afforded by UK colleges. Both colleges and central government must wrestle with the core issues which underpin such changes. We in the FE sector must change to become more collaborative, demonstrate greater responsiveness and operate as a cohesive and whole network. Government must learn to let go.

For colleges to truly lead this transformation, we must be afforded commercial freedoms that offer a more adaptive and flexible model. The Government is investigating the concept on Institutes of Technology. This is a great idea and we are supportive of it, but Government must avoid obsessing about the right delivery model. Government should instead worry about setting the right framework in which colleges can succeed. The sector, colleges and the market in which they operate decide for themselves the best delivery model and structure. Only by taking a step back, can college groups create and maintain the strong partnerships needed with other educational institutions, businesses, LEPs and employers to ensure education and skills prepares our students for the world of work.

This is not to say all change rests with Government, quite the opposite. Where in the past colleges have relied on government as their single source of funding, there has been no link between the local employer needs and college funding. The Apprenticeship levy could change all this. This change requires Further Education Colleges to better understand, and respond to, their clients beyond their learners. We must become better at modelling the national and local skills needs and to adopt a far stronger sectoral approach- where is your key focus in a consolidated college landscape?

As I have said, this sector need not be fearful of change. College leadership is strong and this capacity needs to be strengthened further. If we are to be more commercial, we must grow both this leadership and organisational capacity to full effect. By developing an innovative and entrepreneurial capability we can adapt quickly to new environments. By becoming more commercially aware, we can better understand the needs and wants of local employers. By strengthening our systems leadership, we can better reach across sectors and develop new partnerships which will ultimately serve our students, as they graduate into the world of work.

This level of transformative change is neither new nor something to be feared. The FE sector, like any other, must be dynamic, adaptive and ready to change. It is a challenge we are not only ready to take on, but one we are already leading.

Creating a Commercially Minded FE Sector

A job for life: The death of life-long learning

By Aaron Bowater, Policy and PR Officer

Henry Ford, whom I might cheekily suggest was the ultimate employer in the ‘skills sector’, once said “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” An industrialist of immense success, who transformed the motor vehicle from a curiosity of the wealthy to a practical necessity for the wider public, Ford saw the vital need to educate, and employ, people of all ages. What a shame that this desire to seize on the talents and experience of people is not shared by the Government of the UK.

Since 2009-10, the adult skills budget had been cut by a fifth[1]. In 2015/2016 the adult skills budget faces another 24 per cent cut[2]. These substantial cuts will affect a substantial number of people. When we talk about post-18 education, many think of Universities and Higher Education, Tuition fees and Student Demos. And yet, when in 2013-14 there were 1.3 million full time students at UK universities, there were just short of 3 million adults at FE colleges. Rightly, there has been, and there will be, much debate and opposition to these cuts. These debates and opposition will rest on the numbers affected, who should pay for what and strike at the heart of FE provision across the country.

It is also clear that in order to fund the education they provide, principals and colleges can no longer rely solely on central government. Colleges are already responding well to huge budget constraints by working ever closer with local businesses and employers to diversify their funding. This is particular true with apprenticeships. However, many businesses are reluctant to invest in training for older learners. How are colleges to encourage businesses to spend in this way if government is equally unwilling to champion the need for life long learning?

The debate surrounding adult skills training is much more important than simple numbers on a spreadsheet and the direction of funding. It strikes at the heart of how we value our fellow citizens and the price we place on the potential and provision of life-long learning. Whilst we have seen, throughout the General Election and the early days of the new government, much said about apprenticeships, technical and vocational education, practically all of these discussions and commitments have rested on curriculum provision at age 18 and before. But what about those who wish to retrain? What about those who wish to build upon those skills they have already? And what about those students who, for whatever reason, have been unsuccessful in school and wish to train and learn anew?

We must consider how we wish to respond to the realities regarding adult training. Firstly, advances in medicine and health care mean that we are all living longer. As a result, the question we all remember from school ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ is longer a question to be asked only of our children. The careers and vocations we choose to pursue at 16, 17 and 18 need not be the jobs we have until our old age. Beyond a simple wish to change, it is not inconceivable that a vocational career that suits at age 21 is no longer suitable at age 40 or 50. It is vital that the opportunity for reskilling or changing skill sets is available to all.

It’s not only longevity that drives the desire for change. Unemployment is a problem that has been much discussed in this election and the government seems determined that apprenticeships are the answer. Unfortunately, the persistence of unemployment as a problem poses a unique challenge to the adult skills agenda. For many, when we talk about adult reskilling and adult learning, the unemployed are the first people that come to mind- a dangerous simplification of who benefits from adult skills training. However, there can be little doubt that reducing the availability of adult learning will not aid in the reduction of adult and long term unemployment. To truly combat unemployment, a solution that goes beyond finding the first available work is required. This has already been acknowledged by the Department for Work and Pensions and is a basis for best practice at the jobcentre. So why not extend the desire to find jobs that reflect skills by always striving to increase the skills of those seeking work?

The necessity for new skills and training is not exclusively the domain of the individual. Far from it. As with the digital revolution that has marked the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, the skill sets we require of our citizenry is ever changing and developing. This marks not only the need for new skills in new careers, but the need to impart new knowledge and information in sectors that already exist. The cutting of the adult skills budget signifies a marker that those aged 19 and above will be underequipped for new work environments and technological opportunities.

But we must not despair. Instead, we must fight and strive to protect learning for everybody, regardless of age. Living longer, with rapidly changing technologies, should be the basis for renewed and strong economic growth. This can only be the case if we fight for learning opportunities for those know longer taking lunch on the playground. Not only for those individuals, but for the whole economy and society at large.

In 1903, having worked at a patent office for two years, and by this point thoroughly frustrated, 24 year old Albert Einstein was passed over for promotion until he “fully mastered technology.” I think we should accept, and strive for, his belief that “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”



A job for life: The death of life-long learning

We need more localism, not localised centralism

By Dr. Lynne Sedgmore CBE, Executive Director of 157 Group

It seems to be increasingly accepted that the devolution of powers in relation to skills funding, along with responsibility for transport, planning and infrastructure, is key to stimulating economic growth.  It is, to be true, a very odd notion of ‘skills funding’ that excludes both the whole of higher education and everything that happens before the age of 18; and it is optimistic in the extreme to expect that devolving the funds available to the SFA will somehow offset the effect of their dramatic reduction (25% in this year alone and possibly more following yesterday’s announcement from the Chancellor).  FE colleges nevertheless do see advantages in shifting power over adult learning away from Whitehall and giving localities a greater say.

The advantages we see could come from a better dialogue between colleges and local partners such as LEPs and local authorities which could help all concerned to align their planning and avoid unnecessary duplication.  There would be advantages in localities rather than BIS deciding issues such as whether a provider can offer traineeships and also if local areas could extend the set of activities eligible for public funding, currently tightly controlled by the centre.  There are however two potential pitfalls that need to be avoided.

The first is the temptation for each locality to develop its own funding mechanism with its own set of rules and regulations.  Since neither students nor employers respect local authority boundaries when choosing provision it would be a recipe for chaos at institutional level as well as a potential source of inequity and inefficiency.  It would also generate a huge increase in overhead costs as each area sought to duplicate the staff and systems now deployed centrally by the SFA.

A more significant pitfall however is the temptation of local areas to indulge in manpower planning.  Many of the advocates of localism assert that they would be better able than the centre to ‘match supply and demand for skills’ to the benefit of individuals, employers and communities.  It sounds reasonable: but since the failure of the LSC Whitehall has wisely not tried to second guess the labour market and has no such powers to devolve.  More importantly there is ample evidence that such ‘localised centralism’ just doesn’t work.

The debate in this area often highlights hairdressing courses.  Representatives of local government are prone to argue that colleges produce too many hairdressers and not enough engineers.  LEP boards, undoubtedly influenced by the skewed and unrepresentative nature of their membership produce skill strategies focussed on aerospace and bio-engineering, often ignoring the unfashionable sectors in which most people work.  Yet even were it possible just to direct young people to those occupations local leaders want to develop is it really true that manpower planners make better choices than a free and open labour market.

A recent report from New Economy, the policy and research group for Greater Manchester, entitled ‘Moving on: destination tracking and the value of further education’ gives an interesting fresh perspective on the issue.  Comparing the destinations of three groups of students across Manchester it finds that in terms of employment hairdressers have the best chances of gaining employment significantly outperforming both motor vehicle and the currently fashionable digital and creative sector.  Wisely however they don’t respond by arguing that we should try to produce yet more hairdressers but stress the complexity of the links between learning and the labour market and the many factors that influence student choices.

FE colleges welcome an improved dialogue with local authorities and LEPs and are keen to help improve the understanding by learners of opportunities in local as well as national labour markets. We need to remember however that in our economy the labour market is a market like any other and attempts to interfere with its operation can easily do as much harm as good.  It would be a tragedy if sensible progress towards localism were to be derailed by misguided attempts to impose localised centralism.

We need more localism, not localised centralism