Leadership Insights

From Engineering to Education: A Candid Conversation with Alan Wilson, a Trailblazer in Further Education Leadership

May 5, 2024

Table of Contents


My background prior to working in FE was in engineering, working throughout the UK and Europe and ultimately managing a facility before crossing over into further education around 20 years ago.

After spending a number of years teaching and assessing I worked my way through management roles in both the independent training provider and FE college settings, achieving my first director position some ten years ago.

Why did you choose a career in further education?

My motivation came from my own experiences as an apprentice, most notably the failings of my training provider where I had a number of different assessors, visits were often missed and continually being asked not to date paperwork!

Fast forward to the point where I was mentoring apprentices myself, it became clear that nothing had changed and I wanted to make a difference so embarked upon a career in FE.

Tell us about a notable early experience in your career

My first day of shadowing a block of teaching consisted of the person I was shadowing popping to the photocopier after introducing me, then returning at the end of the day!

The satisfaction of taking your first learners from enrolment to achievement is a brilliant feeling, I was fortunate enough to have two learners from my first cohort compete in the UK finals of world skills and see first hand the difference that consistent good training can have.

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

Having managed a facility during my days in engineering, it is safe to say that you often get a promotion into management because you are good at your job. You are then plunged into a leadership role for which you are not at all prepared, the one thing you can do however is plug the gaps and pick up the slack!

The world of FE however is so broad that you will almost certainly be managing people with a completely different skillset with differing qualifications, this is where the real leadership comes in.

I have repeatedly found that listening with an open mind is always the best starting point, understanding is the key to fixing and surrounding yourself with people whose views are not identical to your own.

Tell us about some key achievements in your career

I have been lucky enough to work across a number of settings in Further Education over the years and achieved much, Ofsted inspections spring to mind, having been involved in six over the years in various capacities including nominee, each with at least a “good” grading.

There have been providers and colleges that I have restructured and helped turn around in terms of retention, achievement rates, quality and profitability but my proudest achievement is the culture we have created in my current provider.

Taking a small existing provider and overhauling the systems, programmes offered, the delivery model and receiving a ‘good in all areas’ judgment at the first full inspection is testament to the team we have built. This all comes in a period of significant change, amongst a backdrop of turmoil in the sector and is nothing short of outstanding from all those involved.

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

It is easy to say that I have never faced any challenges but that is probably more reflective of mindset than fact. I took the opportunity to become an education consultant on a self-employed basis in February 2020 which was an amazing month, right up to the lockdown that took place in March!

At times it can seem all to easy to scrap things and call them a failure but I have personally learnt more from any one of my mistakes than I have from all of my successes combined.

What are your thoughts on improving the further education sector?

If you have ever bumped into me for more than five minutes you will probably know that I believe the sector should be about the learner, closely followed by the needs of the employer.

Controversially, I believe that some of the problems are caused by institutions and providers rather than the system. I understand better than some the shortfall in funding etc. but this is never an excuse for not doing a good job!

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

Always act with integrity and I would say that however difficult the sector may be, it is worth it.

Never lose sight of the reason why you come into the sector and remember – every underperforming member of staff was once judged to be the best person for the role, its your job to help them relight that spark.

Find out more

You can find Alan on LinkedIn so connect and follow him there.

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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.