Sunday, 26 October 2014

Every little helps

Recently I wrote in the TES that Principals of FE Colleges were more effective, better suited to FE than those ‘fast-tracked from industry’. I stand by that, utterly, FE should be run by those who, if you sliced them open would have “FE” running through them, like Blackpool rock. That doesn’t mean we can’t ‘borrow’ ideas or copy their practice, if it both suits and benefits FE.

In the Guardian recently, the new boss of Tesco’s, David Lewis said he is sending thousands of head office staff, including himself and his senior executives, on to the shop floor as part of a campaign designed to win over disgruntled customers.

Just as Tesco is losing shoppers to discount rivals Aldi and Lidl as well as cheaper mainstream rivals such as Asda, FE needs to not lose prospective learners to UTC’s, and other threats. Lewis also unearthed a £250m hole in profits expected for the first six months of the year.

FE hasn’t inflated its figures but it is in trouble. As Nick Linford writes funding cuts of up to 35% to date, and 16-18 providers are now facing a rate reduction that in its first year is specifically targeting 18-year-olds. This leads to bigger classes, fewer staff and a narrow curriculum offer with increasing numbers of disadvantaged learners.

In an over-stretched, over-supplied market, those who underperform are in grave danger of vanishing as other providers wait to take up the disaffected. This is a business plan with a bumpy ending.

So, we have two large, successful organisations; FE and Tesco, both suffering from a reduction in finances (us income and them, profit) and seemingly a surfeit of management staff who, in some cases, lack the experience of ‘regular customer contact’.

In the same article, Kantar Retail analyst Bryan Roberts, who makes regular visits to Tesco supermarkets around the country, argues … “Store managers need to get out of their ivory towers and start walking the shop floor,” he says. “From some of the stores I’ve been to in the last six months you get the impression that the managers are not getting their hands dirty enough.”

We don’t have the financial clout or buying power of Tesco, but we can adopt their best ideas; senior management on the ‘shop floor’, engaging with the staff and students in real environments, not the artificial & stage-managed events so prevalent in many colleges, is one of their best and we should utilise it.

Senior Management Teams have a lot to do, I know that, but if Lewis and his 4000 Head Office Staff can do it, we can too.

This is now a fight for our very survival. The colleges that succeed, flourish, retain current customers, gain new ones, get outstanding results for the learners, and frankly, are still open in two years’ time, will be the ones where SMT has got down on the shop floor, rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty.
Lewis and the new finance director, Alan Stewart, will be among those spending alternate Thursdays and Fridays in stores for the next three months. If they feel this is time well spent, shouldn’t we?

Many already do; they are completely involved in the life of their college and it’s no coincidence that their colleges are vibrant, lively, profitable places. This isn’t a ‘Secret Shopper’ style Lesson Observation Spying mission, but a way, the only way I think, of knowing what’s really going on and putting things right, before they fester into fatal issues.

FE is fabulous, it is the beating heart of our future generations success and happiness; that’s much more important to me than the fate of a few tins of beans, but if beans are worth such focussed attention, then so are our staff and learners.



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