Leadership Insights

From Lifeguard to Leader: Matt Knowles’ Journey in the Further Education Sector

June 23, 2024

Table of Contents

Introduction: Matt Knowles

I started my career as a Lifeguard 2 weeks after turning 16, I was eager to get cracking with earning money whilst completing my A-Levels. I attended Loughborough College after A-levels to qualify as a Personal trainer, having always had a passion for Sport and exercise and because of a sporting injury I obtained, I needed to help myself recover and this sparked a desire to help others recover from injury. This evolved into being a self-employed PT and GP referral specialist moving around England and across London as often as a new opportunity presented itself. Years later I ended up as the Gym Manager at Harrow Leisure Centre where I was introduced to the world of Apprenticeships.

Why did you choose a career in further education?

In truth, I was completely unaware of the Apprenticeship offer in the Leisure sector and to say I was slightly miffed at having spent thousands on my qualifications during the previous couple of years would be an understatement!. I was immediately supportive of the financial benefit an apprenticeship offered an individual as well as the career opportunities it would inevitably create.

More impactful was that I had the pleasure of witnessing first-hand the immediate benefits an apprenticeship can have on confidence, knowledge, and skills and so, being motivated, inspired, and humbled by Lifetime's extremely knowledgeable Assessor (Karen Julier), I joined the Lifetime Training Team with Karen ultimately becoming my mentor and to whom I owe my career in further education.

Tell us about a notable early experience in your career

After severeal achievments after joining Lifetime and across several roles, I joined a company in the Northwest. It was during this time that standards were launched and I saw an opportunity to create something innovative and unique in Apprenticeships which aimed to solve inherent issues in apprenticeship delivery and product offer.

Keeping it concise, I developed a suite of apprenticeships in Leadership and Management to challenge the norm and offer something truly flexible. The offer included a choice of AO (ILM or CMI), was built on a foundation of asynchronous learning (I felt strongly that this was the future of learning with the technological advancements coming to market), would reduce the 'time' barrier to learning by design, would reduce operational costs by integrating automated processes, and offered learners and employers a customisable range of accredited qualifications within the Levy funding rules. The result was that it was appealing, selling to 100% of the companies we pitched to, surpassing forecasted targets within 3 months, and it created a small ripple effect for how an apprenticeship could be built within the funding rules. This opened the door to joining Corndel where I would embark on a pivotal and enjoyable work experience.

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

I have been fortunate to work with some incredible people, I have learned from them what skills I offer and how they compared, the skills I lacked, and what skills required continuous and conscious development to be successful and remain competent. This network of peers, mentors, and friends has and will always be a significant part of my personal and professional prgression.

Working in and in close collaboration with several departments throughout my career has allowed me to better understand the requirements (and competing needs) of each. I believe this cross-departmental knowledge and experience is what makes me more effective and versatile.

Finally, I put my team before me in everything decision I make. I recruit for attitude and willingness to learn and adapt. There are many ways to deliver on strategy and develop your team simultaneously. A team put first will always respect your efforts, appreciate and understand your battles, and do what they can to help you in return.

Tell us about some key achievements in your career

Each job role is a milestone I value and am grateful for, the decision to take a position is always because it is a milestone in the form of a new challenge or promotion. In recent years I have been helping training providers improve and modernise their Curriculum to reduce risk, increase operational efficiency, improve flexibility for employers and learners, and ultimately improve Ofsted readiness.

Learners successfully passing a course I have developed or supported the development of is a very rewarding aspect of what I do.

Finally, with the potential for raising the eyebrows of some of your readers, I have one personal objective as a leader - to develop everyone in my team to understand and be able to do my job better than I can. Working with SME's means that they already have more knowledge on a particular subject than I do, what they often need development in is turning their expertise into a viable, engaging and compliant education product. To achieve this milestone, I have to be willing to consciously make my role and purpose redundant in the long run. I am pleased to say that on several occasions I have achieved this objective. It is a win for the business having more knowledge across their workforce, results in promotions and pay increases for the people in my team, and each one another personal milestone for me.

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

We work in FE, there are too many with many depths and nuances to discuss in a short amount of time! That said, I feel the biggest challenge I continue to encounter is that a Curriculum function is not commonly considered a standalone function offering strong ROI. This can be seen in vacancies where Curriculum and Quality functions are combined. Outstanding Curriculum requires constant improvement and so does outstanding delivery and outcomes, so Quality and Curriculum will never be the best they can be when focus is divided.

My experience has taught me that in any provider, Curriculum has the largest holistic influence on provider performance and stability - Sales sell a Curriculum, Employers buy a curriculum narrative, Operations teach a curriculum, IQAs quality assure curriculum outputs, EPAs validate curriculum content taught and assessed, Ofsted inspects Curriculum intent and impact, and the ESFA validates planned learning on and off the job. Granted that without great performance of other teams the business will struggle even with great Curriculum, but what I am mean is that each one is better enabled to succeed by having a strong Curriculum foundation to build on.

To overcome this I strive to continuously develop to become a credible expert in my domain, and maintain my resolve and resilience to stand by what I know works, with the confidence to challenge what I know doesn't, hasn't, and propose change and develop solutions for what isn't. The last step is to overcoming challenge is to deliver what was promised, in the time it was promised, and ensure that what was implemented is not reliant on a handful of people remaining in the business, but that everyone truly understands the process and thinking and can continue to make improvements regardless of what people decide to do in their career path.

What are your thoughts on improving the further education sector?

I think a strong starting place would be for the policy makers and politicians to utilise the data available to them to support strategic decisions, some decisions made conflict with what the industries workforce know to be viable and sustainable. The business leaders in our sector need more opportunity to provide information and guidance directly, or at least be more heavily involved in quality assuring a policy or funding change before implementation.

Then there are the customers - the learners, and employers who we serve. If anyone knows what they want and need it is them. When they find issue or challenege with what providers have to do to deliver apprenticeships or other types of education, we can't ignore that something is fundamentally wrong.

Flexibility in funding rules is necessary, the reported Levy underspend of around £2.178 billion in 2022-23 supports the thinking. The Levy transfer of up to 50% has shown promise and with some providers doing this effectively. One issue which can't continue to be ignored is the appeal of shorter course durations, sometimes an apprenticeship of 12+ months just isn't appealing to an employer or learner where commercial courses or bootcamps provide the same level of qualification and can be completed in half the time or less, and for cheaper. This is where I am intrigued by the potential benefit for a 50/50 split of Levy funds to be used for apprenticeships and other courses, there are some clear and obvious ways to innovate apprenticeship design to take full advantage of this, and another opportunity for a provider to be the first to market with something that works better for an employer and increases revenue streams for a provider.

One other important improvment we can make falls on us as training providers, we are very siloed in our approach, with each provider protecting their interests. I certainly understand the need for this as a business, but not as a sector. I find it hard to believe that there are any problems not solved by one or more providers, yet a lot of providers continue to struggle and in recent years, have disappeared altogether. Whilst competition is never going to disappear, there is definitely room for us to better support each other with the fundamentals.

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

Never lose focus on your customer - "Does this negatively impact our customers and learners?" should be a standard baseline test for every decision a training provider makes. Some well-known providers continue to prove that keeping the customer at the heart of everything you do absolutely drives performance and growth.

Ask questions, you always have something learn.

In a competitive and evolving sector, be comfortable bringing healthy challenge and debate to everything you do. Compromising what you know is a better way to do something only results in the creation and implementation of something which you know to be second best or worse.

Don't be heistant. Iterate and innovate, your 'outstanding' will soon become the norm.

Take the time to understand the mandatory requirements and needs of all departments and customers you collaborate with, it will better prepare you to solving problems and innovate, and tends to result in quicker acceptance and adoption of any change and improvement proposals.

Finally, and controversially, don't be afraid to move jobs or companies if a viable progression opportunity is offered to you. I can only speak for myself but recruiting someone who has worked for several providers means that they come with the knowledge of several providers and if your workforce comprises mostly loyal people, their knowledge and skills might not currently be present in your organisation. I'm not opposed to loyalty, its an essential component to stability and continuity, but I do accept that new thinking helps to keep companies competitive and new thinking comes from those who have left or are leaving other organisations.

Find out more

You can reach out to Matt on LinkedIn, here is a link to his profile.

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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.