9 February 2016

Yesterday, the further education and skills sector united for emfec’s 2016 Annual Conference. Ranging from Principals and Governors, to LEP and Government officials, and to students and practitioners, over 240 delegates from across the FE landscape attended ‘Innovation in FE: Embracing Devolution’ at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham.

The event presented a unique opportunity for delegates to explore some of the most pressing issues facing us as a sector today in light of current changes such as the devolution of powers to local authorities and LEPs and Area-Based Reviews. It provided a platform for voices from across the skills spectrum to demonstrate how we continue to be resilient and innovative in response to change.

After an introduction from emfec Chair Linda Houtby, delegates heard the keynote speech from Vice-President of Further Education at The National Union of Students (NUS) Shakira Martin who affirmed the need for a united sector voice. ‘Further education changes lives’, she argued, passionately putting forward the case for taking learner voice seriously in the process of Area Reviews in order to empower the next-generation of active and engaged citizens and expand opportunities for colleges.

MP and Shadow Schools Minister Nic Dakin then took the floor to give his take on the challenges that lie ahead for the sector, highlighting Labour’s commitment to lifelong learning and the importance of comprehensive Reviews that take into account all of the provision in an area. After answering questions from the audience, Dakin was followed by the first panel of the day, ‘Creating Innovation in the Skills and Education Sector’.

Conference Chair and Director of Lsect, Nick Linford chaired the debate between an expert senior panel including Jo Lappin, Chief Executive of Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership and Andy Wilson, Principal of Westminster Kingsway College in London, giving the conference valuable insight into the Area Review process. From leadership in governance to empowering students to get involved in NUS campaigns, delegates were then given the opportunity to share their own experiences and gain practical advice through a series of workshops.

The afternoon kicked off with another panel debate focusing on the Forgotten Voices of Policy. The Baroness Sharp of Guildford led the panel of student leaders and teaching practitioners to give their insight into the ways in which policy can become more inclusive. ‘It’s vitally important this sector makes its voice heard’, said Baroness Sharp, arguing that it is a testament to the strength of the sector that it has managed to survive in the face of so much change.

After the panel delegates were treated to a special presentation by ABC Awards Showcase Centre Fashion Enter which has gone from strength to strength since embarking on its mission to revive the UK fashion manufacturing industry, launching The Fashion Technology Academy last year. The final panel of the day focused on the Future Horizons for the Skills and Education Agenda in which Chief Executives including Stewart Segal of AELP and Jill Westerman of FETL shared with the conference their thoughts on the future challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the sector. ‘We are a sector that changes lives’, asserted Westerman, asking us to learn from our experiences and listen to every voice in the sector. The conference concluded with a vision for future in a conversation between Paul Eeles of emfec and Maggie Walker of ASDAN about the upcoming Skills Education Group.

Paul Eeles, Chief Executive of emfec, said:

“It’s fantastic to see so many delegates and speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences unite for our annual conference. This year’s theme is a challenging one but one that resonates strongly with all of us within the skills and education sector and, as we have seen today, we continue to rise to that challenge and come up with innovative solutions to adapt to change.”