Leadership Insights

Debbie Gardiner MBE: A Journey of Transformation and Leadership in the Further Education Sector

June 2, 2024

Table of Contents

Debbie Gardiner: Introduction

I started my career in the retail sector, working with a large blue chip food retailer. I moved from retail operations to their training department and over time specialised in vocational learning. In 2000 I took my knowledge, skills and experience and went to work with a small independent training provider where I held roles of Training Manager, Head of Operations, Director of Learning, Managing Director and CEO. In 2018 I set up DSG Consultancy Services and successfully operated on a self employed basis within the sector, primarily as a NED or Governor. In 2022 I joined Learn Plus Us as Head of Commercial, having been their Chairperson since 2018, and in May 2023 was appointed Managing Director.

Why did you choose a career in further education?

I am passionate about seeing people achieve their full potential and have a good understanding of the difficulties some face in adulthood, as a result of underachievement in their school years. Apprenticeships and other skills training can make a significant difference to people's lives and livelihoods and in so doing can support their employer to meet or exceed business KPIs.

Tell us about a notable early experience in your career

In 2007 I led a small team to write Train to Gain bids in four regions and provided relevant narrative and data to supported a Prime contractor with their bids. We won our first two directly funded Train to Gain contracts in the East Midlands and London and a subcontracted contract in the North West. We met quantitative and qualitative targets on our direct contracts, exceeded volumes and values on the subcontract, whilst maintaining expected quality standards. This covered most of my first 2 years as Managing Director and put the business in a very good position to secure new business and contracts.

How have you developed your career as a leader in further education?

I consider myself to be a lifelong learner, that doesn't mean I'm always completing formal training and gaining new qualifications, it means I take every opportunity I can to learn something new. In my early career I didn't like admitting I needed help, but I soon learnt that no one person can do everything, asking for help is a strength, a sign of self confidence, not a weakness. I joined the ILM, CIPD, CMI and IOD to broaden my knowledge and skills, and to meet people from different walks of life; all part of my development plan. Some of the most impactful leadership development has come from observations of other leaders. Additionally I'm a fan of using the resolution of business problems to develop leadership and management skills. I do have a level 5 qualification in Operational Management.

Tell us about some key achievements in your career

One of my proudest achievements is being recognised with an MBE for Services to Apprenticeships and Charity.

I was a member of the AELP Ofsted/Quality Forum that secured the 8 blackout weeks and the introduction of the role of the Shadow Nominee.

During the Pandemic I provided a range of support for several small ITPs to guide them safely through the COVID-19 regulations and significant changes to delivery models.

Being appointed CEO of Qube Learning.

Returning from a period of four years self-employment to employment with Learn Plus Us and driving the business to achieve an Ofsted GOOD grade 2, following two previous Requires Improvement grade 3s.

What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

I started my career after having a family; I was a late starter and always felt like I had something to prove because I had less senior leadership and management experience than most of my peers.

Additionally as a female leader who wasn't university educated, I often found myself in meetings where I was the only woman in the room, where the pre-meeting discussions were orientated around male dominated topics, making it difficult for me to network and participate effectively. Additionally the actual meetings can feel intimidating. I had an example where I took my cousin to an IOD networking event, he met someone he knew and they assumed he was the member and I was the guest, when the reality was the opposite. I politely mentioned to the gentleman that he'd git it wrong and not only that but I'd won an IOD NED of the year award and have an MBE, he apologised and it all ended positively as we've business associates ever since.

For me it's all about knowing your subject and having sufficient confidence to speak out and knowing when it's more powerful to hold back. It took me a few years to feel confident enough to hold my own. My view is that we need a mix of people in all teams, without diversity the business place can be bland and lacking in foresight.

What are your thoughts on improving the further education sector?

I'd like to see more frequent, transparent and robust reviews of funding rates. I'd also like to revert back to a more person to person approach for the DfE account management. Whilst I understand cost saving is essential, the current approach doesn't work. And finally it would be beneficial to students and learners if funding models/payments were rationalised across all types of providers.

What advice would you give to aspiring leaders in further education?

Never forget the learner is at the heart of everything you do. Be principled and remember you are working with tax payers money. Adopt a balanced approach towards high quality and profitability; both are of critical importance. Collaboration with colleagues and peers from other similar companies, is invaluable, however you need to be confident that the trust works both ways. And finally be yourself and make sure you enjoy being part of this amazing sector.

Find out more

You can find out more about me and Learn Plus Us at - our main service is apprenticeships in childcare, social housing, hospitality and business service. However we're also very proud of our innovative bespoke ESOL courses and the work we do to deliver skills training for Restart participants.

You can also find me on LinkedIn

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Alex Lockey
Director | Bolt Jobs
Founder Alex Lockey is an expert in further education, learning, and skills sector. He leads cost-effective hiring solutions and is known for successful talent placements. Dynamic and driven, Alex seeks innovative solutions to solve sector hiring challenges.