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Fantastic night at Lewisham College on Wednesday. The Principal, Ruth Silver (FRSA) had invited me to be the pre-dinner speaker for the College’s annual fund raising banquet. I managed just to deliver on my promise to cover the birth of human rights, brain science, and the need for a new collectivism, to tell some jokes and to land my speech back at Lewisham College all in ten minutes. The fantastic food was cooked and served by College students, for whom it was part of their course assessment.

Sitting next to Ruth – without doubt one of the UK’s great public service pioneers – it occurred to me how two of the less ‘sexy’ of the public services – social care and further education have both become power houses of innovation. In social care the driver was client and carer dissatisfaction with the services on offer which, combined with a rights based approach, led to the work of In Control and then on to the rolling out of direct payments.

Further education will be a crucial partner in the new Diplomas, which look increasingly certain to become the framework for all 14-19 education (including ‘A’ levels). I suspect colleges will find it much easier than most schools to work collaboratively with other education providers and  with employers.

FE is also at the forefront of two key Government priorities – tackling worklessness and improving skills. We are used to debates about the private sector selling its services to the public sector but in adult FE the direction is reversed. Lewisham’s team have become expert at selling to employers the business case for publicly funded and provided training to employers. As they were telling me on Wednesday their opening line to employers isn’t ‘why aren’t you training your staff’ but rather ‘would you like to improve customer satisfaction by a third?’

Social care because its services were failing, and FE because it has had to constantly renew its mission, have become sites of major innovation. Chatting this morning to Fran Sainsbury, who is heading our project on offender learning and skills, we wondered whether prisons could themselves one day been seen as testing ground for new ideas and practices.

There is lots of interesting work on education going on in our prisons and continuing into the community. Yet for various reasons little of this innovation gets noticed or debated outside the prison and probation fields.. This is something our own project will aim to change.

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