After two years away, the Skills and Education Group Conference returned on 26 May 2022. The Group’s first conference since 2019 also marked its 110-year anniversary, with the roots of the organisation dating back to 1912. Following two challenging years for the education sector, this eagerly anticipated event was a chance for those working in further education to come together and celebrate our successes.


The conference did not disappoint. Over 250 people attended the event at the Jurys Inn Hinckley Island hotel in Leicestershire. The day included keynote speeches, panel discussions, training seminars, and an exhibition, before a celebratory dinner in the evening for the anniversary.


Read on for the highlights of the event.

“We plant seeds in a garden we’ll never see”

Debra Gray, Principal and Chief Executive, Hull College Group

Stories to inspire


The successes of further education can be quantified through statistics, but it is the personal stories that best highlight the positive impact of this sector. Throughout the conference, speakers shared the ways in which further education has changed their lives.


The first panel session, which discussed ‘Levelling up on social mobility in further education’, featured Mamello Atisa, a learner at Fashion Enter whose studies have been supported by a grant from the Skills and Education Group Foundation. She spoke about how education helped her to find a new sense of purpose and get back on track after redundancy, saying the grant was a “huge vote of confidence” at a time when redundancy left her “wilting” with questions and doubts.


In the second panel session, which focused on ‘Removing barriers to adult education’, delegates heard from Naima Pinchen, an Access to Higher Education student at Northern College. Naima spoke about the challenges she faces whilst completing her course and her determination to overcome them. Alongside her studies, she works in a supermarket in the evenings and often completes her coursework during breaks. Due to financial difficulties, Naima would not have been able to progress with her course without support, but thanks to a grant from the Foundation, she is now hoping to go to university.


Other speakers shared their personal stories too. Debra Gray MBE, Principal and Chief Executive, Hull College Group, was part of the first panel session and spoke about how The Sheffield College changed her life in the 1990s. Debra said that “we plant seeds in a garden we’ll never see” – a metaphor for how staff in the sector are always making a difference, even if they do not see that difference themselves.


The event was also an opportunity for those in the sector to connect with new colleagues and reunite with familiar faces. Teacher Luke Zwalf met one of his former pupils, Melissa Lowther, whom he taught GCSEs to 10 years ago. Melissa now works for training provider Conexus Healthcare. Commenting on Melissa’s journey on Twitter, Luke said: “Proud doesn’t come close. This is why we do what we do.”


One of the most inspiring stories of the day came from keynote speakers Jake Graf, (actor, writer and director) and Hannah Graf MBE (a former British Army Captain), the UK’s first transgender parents. Jake and Hannah spoke about their childhoods and the struggle of having to conceal their true identities prior to transition. Both speakers emphasised the importance of supporting transgender people, in both further education and wider society. Hannah stressed that “we’re human beings – we just want to live our lives” while Jake said, “if trans people are supported, we can achieve anything.”


Many in the room were moved by Jake and Hannah’s stories and shared their thoughts on social media.

The show was stolen by the amazing Jake and Hannah Graf, with their heartbreaking and inspiring stories on being transgender and raising a beautiful family. I’m feeling really honoured to have heard from them and wish them lots of luck.

Elysia Mcaffrey, Chief Executive, GLAA

Insights and takeaways


Throughout the conference programme, delegates received plenty of insights on topical sector issues.


The adult education panel featured Dr Louise Karwowski, Director of Education at Cognassist. Louise highlighted that as many as one in three adults have a cognitive learning difference and spoke about the importance of adapting learning provision to address these “hidden needs”.


The use of technology to provide flexible learning options was also touched upon by Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of The Skills Network. In addition, Mark argued that collaboration is the way forward for further education, with an approach centred on working together likely to drive efficiency and responsiveness. If we work together, then “we can be the stars of the education sector”, said Mark.


In the afternoon, delegates were able to attend their choice of training seminar, with sessions on topics such as leadership, technical teaching, learning support, and much more. Kim Rutherford, Founder, Dalton Wise Coaching and Therapy, delivered a seminar that shared her 8Wise approach to mental health and wellbeing. This included a multitude of tips for attendees to apply in their personal and professional lives. For example, Kim spoke about environmental wellness in education settings – the importance of ensuring that your learning environment is influencing learners’ mental health in a positive way.

“We can be the stars of the education sector.”

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive, The Skills Network

Making a difference


Running through the day was the theme of how further education makes a difference to countless individuals – “every day we transform lives”, as Debra Gray said.


To measure our impact in the further education sector, Skills and Education Group publishes an Impact Report each year. The report for 2020/21 was formally released at the conference and you can download a copy here.


This document provides an overview of our impact in the previous academic year. Through case studies, photos, statistics, quotes, videos and even songs, it brings the stories of the Group to life.


The Impact Report is not just about our organisation though, it is about you – our members, centres, and your learners. Everyone who works in this sector makes a difference. So, here’s to many more years of working together for the success of further education.

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