BQ has always been a passionate advocate of the education and skills pipeline that will enable the next generation of growth across Yorkshire. Gary Warke, chief executive of the Hull College Group, guides Mike Hughes through the massive changes facing the sector and the region and how his colleges are facing them head-on.
Running businesses closely tied to the community in three different places presents obvious challenges, and when the three places are Hull, Harrogate and Goole it is clear that Gary Warke has his work cut out for him. He has to not only get the Hull College Group message across to such different places and look after three communities (you might be able to put Goole and Hull in the same folder, but Harrogate...?) but also remain innovative, eye-catching and agile.
And there are big changes in his in-tray as well, just to keep things nice and busy, with the Government’s area reviews across the country bringing a torrent of mergers aimed at refocusing the sector and simplifying the regional structure. The man leading the reviews, FE Commissioner Sir David Collins, has said the mergers could cut the number of colleges from more than 240 to about 170.
“The group model we have created here with Hull, Goole and Harrogate is now what the Government is recommending,” Gary explains, “with a local principal on the ground at each campus to have that important stakeholder engagement with the local community and keep the local identity.
“But the biggest issue that everyone is dissatisfied about is that this isn’t a strategic solution to deliver skills for the region, because the Sixth Forms aren’t included, only the colleges. What that means is that if you wanted to see what post-16 education was going to be like in the Humber region, and look at the economic drivers moving things forward, you wouldn’t just look at nine colleges, you would look at every post-16 organisation.
“And the only reason the schools have been exempt is that it would take too long to bring then into the mix. We appreciate there is a timeline because more than 40% of colleges are posting a deficit and a number of them are being propped up, so the Government has prioritised those in the first wave.”
Another key change here is that previously the Treasury would bail out struggling colleges, but now the insolvency rules are being changed, so if a college runs out of money in 2018 it will close. That’s the blunt weapon being used to persuade colleges to federate.
Gary’s influence – and the model he is establishing – also extends considerably with his work as a director of the 157 Group, a membership group of colleges which requires a turnover of not less than £35m and a minimum grade 2 for leadership and management at the last Ofsted inspections. It is a network of excellence and shared best practice, but crucially it also looks for influence on Government policy and aims to have a voice when strategy is being drawn up.
“There are some massive changes still facing us all,” said Gary, who was awarded an MBE in 2013 for services to education. “The Sainsbury report will reshape completely what we do, so from 2019 the academic A-level route will be one route at the sixth-form and sixth-form college level, then the colleges will look after ‘technical and professional education’ route and then there will be an apprenticeship route.
“The proposal is that all the different awarding bodies out there will be based on 15 groups, so if you want to do engineering or construction, there is one route and one set of qualifications.
“That will transform what we do and everyone seems to have embraced Lord Sainsbury’s report because we have been tinkering with high-quality technical education for years. There is obviously an impact in some of the big awarding bodies, but I think it creates a new level of engagement.”
We are already 600 words into this interview and all we have talked about are the raft of changes heading Gary’s way, but there is one more to come with the Apprenticeship Levy planned for the beginning of May next year. Here, all employers operating in the UK who have a wage bill of more than £3m each year, will make an investment of 0.5% of that wage bill in apprenticeships. Another game-changer for Hull as one of the largest providers of apprenticeships in the country, with just over 5,000 on its books.
So, among all that legislation and rewriting of the rules, how does the actual education of Yorkshire’s aspiring entrepreneurs get looked after? This is the true strength of a college principal in the second decade of the 21st century – be a stand-out businessman whose company and its 1,300 staff adds more than £500m to the economy of Hull and the East Riding each year, while being a caring educator of 30,000 students in the same moment.
“Our view is that in a competitive market our unique selling point here is that you are buying into a career route when you join one of our colleges,” he says. “Our strapline has been very much focused around employability, career and developing an entrepreneurship which we embed as a key component in all our curriculums. For a lot of people student fees are playing a bigger part in their plans, so if you are paying £9,000 you are going to be much more discerning about what your expectations should be.
“These are our customers because ultimately it is a transaction for which they are paying a lot of money and the service needs to be pretty damn good. So we provide a progression pathway for your career and we are only one of five in the country where you can join us full-time when you are 14.
“So they can come to us at the sort of age when they might be disengaged from school, they can do their normal GCSEs with us but then there is a strong vocational route for them, perhaps into engineering. By a country mile we are the largest provider at that age.”
There are obvious benefits here in being able to work with young people who have only just become teenagers, bring their interest in education and work back from the brink and then guide them into the most employable sectors. That is the sort of route Lord Sainsbury is talking about, and is a world away from the short-term treatment some students are getting where achievement and meeting targets is seen as getting the piece of paper in their hands and wishing them the best of luck ‘out there’.
“You can stay with us right through to post-graduate level, as we were given our own degree-awarding powers earlier this year, so for us the seamless progression we offer from 14 to 21 is the dream way of doing it and an attractive option, and we make sure that more than 3,000 students in the 16-18 age group go out for work experience,” he says.
“And then we want to be able to get them into the world of work, for which we have brought in our Employability Skills Passport because we have relationships with more than 1,200 employers and they were telling us they couldn’t differentiate between all the people coming out of the college. So we wanted to create something that was broader than just the qualification and covered things like attitude, punctuality, communication and teamwork.”
By embedding the passport – the first to be recognised by the Hull and Humber LEP - in every full-time student’s programme and rolling it out to other providers across the region, the college is making a significant difference to the chances of its students being employed and earning the wages that lead to the taxes being paid and the homes being bought and the local economy being that little bit better off.
Among those thousands of potential employees and employers, there are many who have the entrepreneurial urge to work for themselves developing ideas the college has helped to nurture. They might already have been inspired by ideas like Platform studios, a hub and talent pool aiming to help budding entrepreneurs and start-ups in digital and technology or they might have been working with the digital hub C4DI to develop opportunities or spent time with The 14-16 Job Club sending young people out into the community with live project briefs or at Hatch, a set of incubator spaces.
“We are creating skills that will be used in new businesses for people who will go out from here and become sole traders,” said Gary, who also sits on the local LEP. “I guess what this all leads to is that whether you come here at 14 or 16 or as an undergraduate, the whole strand of developing employability and entrepreneurship is an intrinsic part of the curriculum. We are not just paying lip-service to it, so if you click on a subject like engineering on our website, not only do you get the range of qualifications, you also get the careers, the typical earnings and all the vacancies in the region to completely interlink the sector.
“Hopefully, the regional job opportunities mean the Level 3 and below students will pretty much feed into the local market, while the undergraduates at Hull School of Art and Design may go to Manchester, Leeds or London. Our view is that wherever our young people have those opportunities, it would seem foolish to discourage them.
“What the city and the region is short of is Level 4 and beyond and it is about trying to ensure we retain those individuals here as well, while the challenge is making sure there are enough jobs to do that with huge businesses like Siemens, where we are now involved in the early-stage training of every employee in the factory at a new Composites Training Centre.”
The upcoming Hull2017 City of Culture programme will turn the spotlight on the region like never before and Hull College Group will be competing like any other business for its share of the attention, from venues to participation, with theatres, make-up, art and design all being opened up, and a project called ‘Why the Hull Not?’ with adverts in places like Manchester and Leeds to help capture the attention and help with recruitment.
It is all aspirational, confident and innovative, like the City of Culture itself and the students who knock on the college’s doors for their next move, so Gary won’t let his colleges be the place where those aspirations fall by the wayside.
“What I have noticed during my 11 years here is that the students have quite low self esteem and they are perhaps not as ambitious as they could and should be, so we see one of our roles here as helping them stretch that ambition. One of the ways we can do that is simply by skills competitions, where we encourage our young people to be the best in their area and in the region and across the country and develop and improve self-esteem.
“We have never had anything quite like the buzz there is in the city at the moment, which is helping so much with that confidence and pride, and we have to be agile enough to work with opportunities like the culture events and investing businesses like Siemens.
“We have a separate arm of the business called HCUK Training which gives us a flexible response for firms like Siemens, Smith & Nephew and Croda to have bespoke training and build a relationship very quickly. We will meet the employer, do a Training Needs Analysis, cost it all out and then work through the delivery and impact on the organisation in terms of return and profitability.”
Part of that costing will be the manpower the college might suddenly need to staff a new facility, course or training programme. But Gary explains that the shock-absorbers to deal with that are already in place.
“We have created our own contract with terms and conditions – about which the unions clearly have their views – because to be as agile as we need, you cannot have a lecturer on 60 days holiday and teaching a certain number of hours. So we have created our own contract with flexible terms so we might recruit them for a short period, perhaps six, nine or 12 months and they will be able to go in and make this training possible. And they are not geographically limited either, so they can be appointed across the region, which is a route a significant number of colleges are now going down.”
Institutions around the country are also united in their concerns over the Brexit vote, with a pipeline of European grants and investment facing uncertainty. The hope at Hull is that a relationship will be resumed, but the lack of a recognised structure for it is meaning some anxious waits by the phone and an understandable reduction in commitment to long-term plans.
“The hope is that there will be projects that will guarantee funding, and that different types of funding may become available, but for a lot of colleges there was concern because with the apprenticeship funding changing and core funding eroding for the demographic situation, the only thing coming through for growth was European funding.
“My view looking at our business model is that for the next couple of years we will have something there, for 16-18s we will know about the area reviews and there is a growth opportunity with the demographic because the primary schools here are bulging so by 2020 the number of 16-year-olds starts to rise significantly. Also, prison governors now have their own dedicated skills and training budgets so we are starting to have those conversations.”
Does this mean there can there actually be an excitement and confidence about the future for our would-be entrepreneurs across the Hull and Humber region? “Eleven years ago I was working at a college in Cheshire and had never even visited Hull,” said Gary, now living at South Cave, with his wife and two children at secondary school and one at primary.
“I came here as deputy because I wanted to be at a large urban college with the challenges that brought. I only planned to stay three or four years, but every year from then there was something significant happening and by the time we had got to the point where I was considering moving, my predecessor Elaine McMahon announced she was retiring and I thought ‘where else would I want to work.’
“For our city and our region the investment that is coming here is significant and means we are on the cusp of something important. There will always be a need for high-quality skills and training, which we must remain focused on, and make sure we listen to employers about their needs and meet them with agility and quality.
“There are new markets to explore, so creativity will be a cornerstone of how we work with big employers locally and nationally and yes, it is still exciting with a significant amount of work and new growth opportunities for the group to take us to the next level now. We are an anchor institution in this region, but we have always been clear that serving Hull and East Riding was never going to sustain us long-term, so a national delivery is a key part of what we do.
“On that national theme, the 157 Group can have an influence on local and regional economies in terms of driving skills and infrastructure, and it is quite solutions-focused rather than just whingeing and moaning. It is a collective wanting to make things work better and influence government.
“We are now looking at how we can share services and create our own commercial arm so we can collectively bid in the sector and deliver policy more efficiently because we have helped to shape it. There is a discussion to be had about how big we want it to get, but we certainly want to get the coverage across the country.”
Tellingly, 157 Group was formed in 2006 in response to paragraph 157 of Sir Andrew Foster’s report on the future of further education colleges, in which he argued that principals of large successful colleges should play a greater role in policymaking.
A decade on, that is the natural goal of the country’s best education leaders, to help educate the country itself on the best way to use its most precious asset. Thanks to Gary Warke and his team, the group model has been a huge success for Hull, Harrogate and Goole, Sir David Collins’s area reviews are establishing mergers as the only way forward and the 157 Group is at the top of that pyramid, being essentially a group of the best groups.
This has all grown out of good old networking, the first conversation over a glass or a mug that leads to a realisation about shared goals, that leads to the first official meeting, that leads to a collaboration. There will be some pain along the way, and there needs to be an understanding alongside the unwavering leadership, so I hope Gary Warke stays with us for many years to come and keeps on producing Yorkshire entrepreneurs, but who knows where he could end up post-Sainsbury, post-Collins and post-Brexit? SW1P 3BT perhaps?