Phil Beach CBE is Energy and Utility Skills‘ Chief Executive Officer, an organisation that works with industry to ensure a safe, skilled and sustainable workforce for power, gas, water and waste organisations – and their supply chains – in the UK.
Before taking up his current CEO role in April 2020, Phil spent a number of years at Ofqual, first as Director of Strategic Relationships and then Executive Director for Vocational and Technical Qualifications and Apprenticeships after a 30-year career in the Royal Air Force.
Peridot Partners’ Head of Awarding and Skills, Kristina Preston, welcomes Phil into the Awarding Body expert hot seat to discuss transferable leadership skills, attracting external talent into executive positions, benefits of trusteeships and how he hopes to impact the awarding sector moving forward.
Why did the awarding sector tempt you after your military career?
I’m asked this question often as it does seem, at first glance, rather an odd jump. Joining the RAF in the 1980s, I was struck by the fact that the RAF attracts people from a wide range of backgrounds and has strong track-record of championing apprenticeships and vocational and technical qualifications. If you reflect on the RAF, it’s very much an organisation that grows its own and is rightly proud of its tradition of through-life training, skills development and personal growth.
In the military, you face a relatively young retirement age so, after a fantastic career and having loved every minute, it was an obvious point in my life to ask: ‘where do I want to go?’. The RAF’s attitude towards apprenticeships and skills development really ignited my strong commitment and passion for skills and training so I wanted to find a career and organisation that would allow me to pursue that.
This interest in qualifications was heightened further by taking a keen personal interest in my children’s studies through GCSEs and A Levels. I learned quite a lot, vicariously, about being on the receiving end of GCSEs and A Levels! When an opening came up in the qualification’s regulator, I thought it was a great opportunity to get into an organisation that touched very many different parts of qualifications and assessments.
Was Ofqual a big change and how easy was it to transfer across your leadership skills?
It does seem like a major career change, but the military works really closely with the civil service, as I have done for many years. So there were no real surprises on either side. There’s an urban myth that military people have a ‘command and control’ management style, but nothing could be further from the truth.
If you’re expecting to run an organisation and put people in harm’s way then, whatever plan you come up with, you best make sure that your team is involved and with you, because they are going to deliver it. People would be surprised at how collegiate and collaborative the planning and teamwork is in the military which translated really well to the awarding sector. One challenge initially was moving from a leadership role where I was in charge of an organisation of 6,000 people across three countries to an organisation where I had a team of five; but many of the people management skills are very similar.
The big lesson I learned, and I’m so pleased I did, is that I considered the first year in the assessment and qualifications sector as my own apprenticeship. I didn’t join as a chief executive, but as a director, and I worked hard to understand as much as I could about assessment qualification design, delivery and regulation. Without this learning phase, I couldn’t do the job I’m doing now, nor the one I did previously at Ofqual, nearly as effectively. I believe that it’s really important to get under the skin of assessment and understand the principles if you are to have credibility as a leader in the qualification and skills sector.
What are the key challenges facing the awarding sector?
The obvious first one is the impact of Covid – which is present now and will be for a long time. The system needs to consider its approach to qualifications and assessment both for the current cohort that will graduate this year but with the ones that will follow. It presents all sorts of challenges – both technical and of public confidence – around consistency and comparability between students that have had various levels of exposure to teaching and learning. For me it’s about fairness – not just for the learners this year, but for those who already have qualifications and those yet to take their assessments. And I’d also reflect that we shouldn’t just focus on academic qualifications. Apprentices and learners taking vocational and technical qualifications had their learning impacted equally.
In this context, it is important to recognise that ‘users’ of qualifications necessarily include a range of stakeholders, not least employers. Employers will want to know that a qualification or apprenticeship signifies a level of attainment; for energy and utility industries, this is an imperative, as many roles are safety critical. For vocational and technical qualifications, it is still often a case of what a candidate can demonstrate, rather than what they might have been able to achieve had their learning not been disrupted.
I think there is a systemic question. It’s important to think of qualifications as part of a system not the whole system in and of itself. It’s important to acknowledge that you can’t solve every problem just through qualification delivery – particularly vocational and technical assessments that often confer a licence to practice. Understanding how qualifications fit within the bigger picture is really important.
There are also some interesting challenges and opportunities that derive from Government policy initiatives. I’m not in this sector by accident, but because exciting and interesting things are happening in energy and utilities. The Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, the energy white paper, you can list any number of recent policies both in England and across Devolved Administrations. They all point to the importance of Energy and Utility Industries, and the clear need to develop the skills needed to tackle the climate emergency.
The challenge for awarding organisations will be making sure that ambitious Green policy objectives are coherent with equally ambitious changes to vocational technical qualifications. This will be challenging as employers look to upskill and reskill their existing workforce to meet green ambitions whilst the qualifications system is undergoing substantive reform.
I’m a strong supporter of the broad thrust of government policy around making vocational technical qualifications as highly valued and regarded as their academic equivalent. In years to come, I’d like to think that a parent would say you have a choice between A Levels and equally well-respected and valued vocational routes. If we can achieve that through T Levels, apprenticeships and a suite of high-quality employer-led qualifications, then I think we’ll have done well. It’s a challenge because there are many big moving parts, but it’s a huge opportunity to be at the heart of an exciting time for both qualifications and for the country.
How can the awarding and endpoint assessment sector encourage people to transfer their skills from other sectors?
Firstly, the energy and utility sector faces a real challenge around diversity and inclusion and we’re looking at what we can do to solve some of those problems. I’m not sure that’s true of the awarding industry as a whole but I would imagine there are some similar parallels. It’s about being bolder and braver with some of your appointments.
In my experience, Ofqual recognised that I had many transferable skills from the military, but I didn’t have deep expertise in the sector. However, there was a genuine reflection on both sides that I would have to work extraordinarily hard in the first year to absorb knowledge and an understanding that there would be a development period.
I’ve joined Energy and Utility Skills with a much deeper understanding of skills assessment qualifications and I’m immersing myself in the sector to ensure I can bring this knowledge to bear. Organisations looking to broaden their diversity, inclusion and skillsets, have to think about what really matters in terms of cultural fit to your organisation and the degree to which candidates can learn new parts of the trade.
And there is, of course, a balance to be struck. While it is important to be able to bring talent into an organisation at senior levels, I wouldn’t overlook the importance of growing from grassroots. I was speaking to the Federation of Awarding Bodies about generating an apprenticeship around assessment expertise; not someone that goes out and assesses but someone that designs and develops assessments as it’s such a core skill that is rare to find. Why wouldn’t the sector work together to identify that solution and build it itself? Something where we could take it into our own hands and develop seems a really exciting opportunity.
What are the advantages of taking on a trustee position and why would you encourage others to do the same?
The first reason to take on a board position would be to further broaden your own skillset. Many people have worked with boards, fewer people have worked on boards, and they are clearly different. I believe I’m a more effective chief executive having worked on a board and understanding how a board relates and reacts to an organisation. I understand how the board wants information presented, how they want to manage risk and how they function, which allows me to engage far more effectively as a chief executive.
I found it more straightforward to work with my board having served as a board member myself. I can’t underestimate how important and valuable that experience has been in terms of personal development, I genuinely don’t think I would have been as effective without that experience.
I think the second reason is because boards perform an important function in and of themselves. I’m proud to be a board member of the independent school’s inspectorate and I chose that because the role of the organisation matters deeply. Therefore, finding the board position that meets your personal development needs, and is something you care about, is clearly important.
What are you hoping to have an impact on in the awarding sector going forward?
I’m in my current role by design, not by accident. I spent six years in Ofqual, and I think we got the vocational and technical qualification side of regulation into a good place as I left the organisation. I left for a specific purpose; having been immersed in government policy development for T-Levels, apprenticeships and qualification reviews, I felt as if they were in the right place and heading in the right direction.
Having worked hard on the development of the policy framework for skills, I’m keen to get involved in ensuring they deliver for key government policies relating to climate change. My ambitions for the next five years would be that Energy and Utility Skills provides the means for industries to develop a safe, skilled and sustainable workforce that is able to deliver government ambitions. This will mean collaborating to identify emerging skills needs, working to develop upskilling and reskilling programmes quickly and ensuring coherence with future qualifications and apprenticeships that we will need to continue the green journey.
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