Tom Wilson Steps Down As Ufi's Chair

Blog Post by Post Sophie Bailey, EdTech Writer & Creator of The EdTech Podcast.

This month Ufi VocTech Trust says farewell and thank you to our current Chair of Trustees, Tom Wilson.

Tom has been Chair of Trustees at Ufi since 2017, overseeing Ufi’s 5-year strategy: Learning Without Walls, more than 200 Ufi-funded projects, and the introduction of Ufi Ventures, during his tenure.

To celebrate Tom’s time at Ufi, we reflected on all things vocational learning, technology, and what’s next for Tom in a 1:1 chat. Thank you, Tom!

How are you today?

Well, we're stuck in lockdown, same as everybody else. But we're lucky. We've got a nice house, big garden, decent pensions. So, for us, it's relatively easy. It's just me and my wife. We do miss seeing our two children and granddaughter an awful lot.

Our son and his partner have got another one on the way, due in about a month's time. That's the big source of stress in our lives really, is not being able to help them as much as we'd like to.

How did you start your role as Chair of Trustees?

Well, I started as chair back in 2017 when, very, very sadly, the previous chair, Ray Barnes, who was a lovely man, he died. I'll never forget it. Ray had to go in to hospital, and he rang me up. I was on a train. He said, "I've got a bit of a medical issue, Tom. I just wonder if you could take over for a few weeks, if that's all right?" I sort of said, "Sure. Happy to step into the breach."

I became interim Chair in 2017 after Ray died in November and fully took on the Chair role in April '18. That was subsequently confirmed by the Ufi Trustees, very kindly. A lovely bunch of people, the trustees, and the staff. I've always really, really been fortunate, I think, in having a lot of really committed, decent people to work with, both before I was chair and when I became chair.

We did a lot of good.

But my initial involvement in Ufi goes way back to the early days of Learndirect, which was its predecessor organisation. Nothing to do with Ufi now, of course. I was on the board of Learndirect for a bit. I was appointed there partly as the TUC rep because I was working at TUC at the time as head of the education department. The Labour government that had set up Learndirect felt, quite rightly, that it would be good if there was a kind of workers' voice, so to speak, on the board, and I became very, very interested in that. I think it was a fantastic organisation. We did a lot of good. It was some sadness to me when the government instructed the board that the organisation had to be sold.

So, it was duly sold to Lloyds Direct Capital. With that money, because it was a charity, it had been set up as a charity, the money did not proceed back to the Treasury. I think they rather hoped it would, but it didn't. We set up Ufi as a completely independent, standalone, brand new charity, to try and carry on the work of promoting the value of online learning and vocational technology in all its guises, it's not just about online, for adults in the UK.

We really got going, I think, in 2012, as Ufi, and Ray became chair. Ironically, I was on the small sub-committee that interviewed and recommended him. So that was the beginning of my involvement right from the early days.

What highlights & memories will stick with you?

Well, taking over as Chair, I was very lucky because I did so at a time when we'd been doing an awful lot of really quite careful preparatory work to make sure that we didn't just splurge all the money and go out with a bang.

We were determined that we were going to make very careful, effective use of the money. In the early days, we received a bit of criticism from people who said, "Why aren't you spending more of it quicker?"

But I think that it was really a very good investment to spend our time quite carefully testing out different projects and ideas and sounding out the market, so to speak, because, from quite an early start in 2016, I think, by then we were spending perhaps one or two million a year, quite small amounts of money relatively. I was lucky enough to be in a position where we could ramp that up pretty quickly to nearly five or six million by 2018/'19 and '19/'20. That was entirely down to the fact that we'd done a lot of careful preparatory work so that we knew exactly what we were doing, and we had a very, very low failure rate.

I don't really believe in the concept of a failure rate because we learned as much from the things that didn't quite work as the ones that did. That's precisely what we're there for, is to provide a bit of funding that people couldn't get from anywhere else. The results are amazing sometimes.

Are there any Ufi-supported projects you're especially proud of?

The projects that I particularly can remember... it's kind of invidious to pick any out because they were all fantastic in their own way. Relate. We funded Relate. Relate are national leaders in counselling and counselling training services. They use their expertise to deliver basic counselling skills training to support frontline staff working with the public in a variety of sectors. And their Ufi project was all about working to build their capability in digital learning so that they could improve access to their counselling expertise. They did this through piloting the digital delivery of their popular 'Counselling Skills for Non-Counsellors Course'. This approach allowed them to scale their training for many more people than through the traditional learning methods that they were previously using and allowed them to support organisations such as CLIC Sargent who support children and young people with cancer; NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group; Simpson Millar LLP, Solicitors; and St Ledger Homes, a housing services provider, who all have to practice and develop empathy skills and communication in their work, but aren’t trained counsellors. The pilot project then acted as a sort of catalyst to a wider digital transformation process across the Relate organisation which drew in many more counsellors, perhaps more representatives of the communities they served.

So that was a really interesting example of the ways in which vocational technology aren't just a way of delivering learning a bit more cheaply and effectively, but can actually have some radical consequences way beyond that. The the whole project was really aligned with our Ufi values.

Also, Blended Learning Essentials. One of the things we tried to do from the early days was to help the adult skills community, FE college staff, people working in independent training providers, all kinds of people involved in adult skills, help them to be better at their jobs, particularly in the FE world where the staff there receive, to be honest, very little training, I think, in online VocTech, its delivery and use.

So we set up this thing called Blended Learning Essentials, BLE, and that's been a fantastic success. Hundreds of thousands of staff have accessed that. Maybe not the full thing, but they've certainly taken some modules. That's something I'm certainly very proud of.

Any surprises? Are there any Ufi-supported projects you remember for being a bit different?

There was a wonderful one, the Children’s Food Trust Learning Network. It was an organisation that was promoting much better online learning for staff working in school kitchens.

People working in school kitchens just needed loads more help about how to prepare these meals, and when little Johnny queued up at the counter and said, "Please, Miss, can I have chips and burgers?" they would know, "No, little Johnny. You're not allowed to have chips and burgers. You've got to have something else." This kind of struck a chord with me because my own kids would have been the first in the queue to say they had chips and burgers, and we were trying to get them to eat more sensible stuff.

This was all chiming in with Jamie Oliver trying to get away from the turkey twizzlers and whatnot. Anyway, this was a roaring success because there was tremendous take-up. Lots of schools up and down the country thought it was great, and it helped people working in school kitchens enormously to improve the organisation and the ways in which they cooked and prepared and served food. So much so that we got a query from the Department of Education, and they basically not only bought the entire thing but then made it compulsory that every school in the country had to work with this little organisation.

They went from nothing to having a sort of nationwide corporate, if you like, entirely thanks to us because we'd spotted something which ended up helping hundreds of thousands of staff - I was really proud of that one.

What do you recall about Ufi's mission and focus?

It's interesting. You see, one of the early decisions we had to take was, are we going to stray into Higher Education? Are we going to go downwards by age into working with children? Are we going to go beyond the UK? Quite rightly, in the early days, the trustees said, "No. Let's keep it pretty focused." So, we did not go anywhere near HE because HE's got plenty of money, frankly, compared to FE, we thought.

But also we didn't want to go into children’s education because that's a completely different kind of area, and we wanted to focus on adults, very much on adults, and particularly around the world of work. And particularly, not just any old adults, but what we call the unloved, people who had relatively low skills, probably quite low paying jobs, didn't get the same opportunity for retraining as lots of other people did - certainly didn't get the same opportunities as university graduates. That was the early founding principle of Learndirect, if you like, and Ufi picked that up and carried on with it.

I think we've been very successful in showing what can be done and opening up the whole market.

We've run lots of demonstrator projects which are great in themselves, but part of their value is that they can leverage in a lot of interest from other people and show what can be done for relatively little money. Weshow lots of employers what can be done for their staff. We had a project with Jaguar Land Rover, for example. It would be easy to say "Well, this is a relatively wealthy employer. Why are funding this?" But it was to show the transformational effect a little bit of leadership, time and investment can have. Working with Jaguar Land Rover we were able to showcase the benefits of VocTech and support their supply chain to adopt vocational technology so that workers could be much more productive and get on in their jobs and careers.

I do think it's transformed the way that JLR thinks about training, and many other car and manufacturing companies, automotive companies and beyond, looked at that and thought, "Perhaps we could do the same”.

One of the things we learnt at Ufi is, and the Trust’s CEO Rebecca designed this, is an approach where we give lots of people a little bit of money, and if that works, we give them a little bit more and so on. That's been a great way of nurturing and helping what starts as just a spark. Somebody had a good idea, but they may not be the best person in the world at putting forward a business case, but we'll help them to do that. That's the way that you build a market.

What are your hopes for Ufi Ventures, which launched during your time as Chair?

I'm very proud of Ventures. That's putting our money where our mouth is. We are prepared to find and invest in things, and so far, touch wood, it's doing pretty well, I'd say.

One of the really good ones, I think, is Kinderly, an organisation which provides a lot of help to people working in nurseries, to all their staff, both on training them how to perform complex roles working with very young children, but also managing all the admin and the bureaucracy of running a small organisation, not least coping with Ofsted visits. So that will help people and make money, I'm certain of that.

There are many others in that Ventures portfolio. SonicJobs is another fantastic example. Its a bit like LinkedIn but for blue collar workers, delivery drivers, warehouse staff, people like that. It's helping potentially hundreds of thousands of people to get jobs and training which they otherwise wouldn't have been able to get so easily. It helps a lot of employers that don't want recruits to have to fill in enormous, long, complicated forms asking what GCSEs you have, when they just need to employ lots of delivery drivers, or whatever, as quickly as they can, but making sure that they have the right competences as well.

One of the things I mentioned about the unloved is very well exemplified by Playlingo. They got a VocTech Seed grant in 2018. That’s our starter grant. What they do basically, is kind of Janet and John books for grownups but who have got poor reading skills, poor literacy skills. So, these are very simplified adult texts, thrillers, romances, comedies, whatever. I don't mean adult in the sense of being about sex or anything like that, but they're adult. They don't treat people as idiots who haven't got very good English skills. They treat them as normal grownups, but who may not be very good at English. They are fantastically successful at introducing new vocabulary and getting people reading and getting people interested in reading.

That's, again, a lovely example of the way in which VocTech has got a potential for being democratic, if you know what I mean, and putting power in people's hands to act and behave as grownups, which, of course, they do. It's very, very different from the sort of normal, traditional approach to adult education which is put people in a classroom and talk down to them. That's not what we do because we're not about that. So, I think that's the point I'd really want to make.

What goes alongside that, I think, is acting as demonstrator, building a market in order that we can show that there is a market, and that's what Ventures is all about. If we can make a bit of money, lots of other people can too, and hopefully they'll be watching our Ventures experiment and decide to invest much, much more money in the way that we are, thus showing you can get a good return and you can provide a real social benefit.

That, I think, partly rests on the fact that very early on, unlike some organisations, which I won't name, which splurged a lot of their money and had lots of think-tanks and strategy reports and glossy leaflets and CDs and so on, we didn't do that. We thought we'd let our projects speak for themselves. Then what we did was to reflect upwards and outwards, the actual, practical, lived experience of these projects, the ones that didn't work so well and the ones that did. That, I think, has been much, much more useful to people, so that they can learn and think about VocTech much more widely. There are no magic silver bullet here. People have to immerse themselves in it and think it through carefully and work out how it's going to apply to a particular market and so on. Play Lingo is a very good example of that.

What can you tell us about the Credit Suisse work to invest Ufi's funds proactively in supporting positive social impact?

That's another example of us putting our money where our mouth is.

We had a big discussion with our trustees about that because we've actually been phenomenally successful in our investment policy to date. We started out with £52 million, I think, and after eight years, nine years, we've still got £52 million, and we've spent £20 million. Now that's because our previous investment strategy has been very well managed by Rebecca and her team. Gabby, you must mention Gabby. She's a fantastic finance director. She's been with us for a long time too and she's great.

But moving to Credit Suisse was a bit controversial because what we effectively said was we wanted to get the same or similar kinds of returns but in a way which made sure that our £50 million was absolutely bang on our priorities, and wasn't being used badly, not just for landmines and tobacco and big oil or something, but was being squarely invested in areas of positive social impact, particularly education and technology products. Credit Suisse made a very strong presentation on that. That's why we gave them the portfolio. I'm confident that they will do that. But, again, that's the value of a showcase, a bit like the Ventures activity itself.

It's not just being a green investor. That's relatively simple compared to what we're doing. We're actually saying, "No, no, we want to be far more than that, much more aligned to our core learning objectives."

What are your hopes for Ufi as it navigates the volatility of 2021 and beyond?

What I hope we can do is make sure, to put it bluntly, that all the learning that arises out of COVID is not lost when we finally emerge from lockdown. I do think that's a big danger. I think there will be an awful lot of people, employers and so on, who will think, "Oh, thank God for that. We can go back to what passes as normal. Back to classroom learning, face-to-face." Of course, there'll be some reversion to classroom, and quite right too. Lots of educational contexts you do need face-to-face.

But what I hope we can do, as Ufi, is to maintain as much as we can of the far higher level of interest and understanding and enthusiasm and expertise that's now been developed for VocTech. Quite how we do that I think remains to be seen. But I'm certain we can. What it will require from Ufi, and we've talked a lot about this on the board, is ramping up our comms strategy and trying to get the message out there even more forcefully than we have been doing. We've not done a bad job at all, I think we've had a big impact, but I think we could do a lot more to showcase the success that we've had and, in that way, not lose all the lessons of Covid.

What's next for you, Tom?

Well, I'm writing a book on trade unions and education.

It’s not exactly going to be a bestseller, …I've resigned myself to the fact that it will have a niche audience. But I do think there's a real story to be told there because many, many of the colleges and institutes of education, and poly’s, as they were, and even some universities, were founded by or grew out of organisations set up by working people back in the 19th century. When the TUC first met in 1867, there were 10 items on its agenda. Four of them were about adult education. Unions are primarily and fundamentally about education.

Are there any other books or people which have inspired your way of thinking?

In terms of books, I know this will sound quite corny, but one of the great Labour classics is The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists which I read at an early age. It was very influential. It's by Robert Tressell. It describes a group of working-class people back at the turn of the century who were house painters and builders in a mythical town like Hastings. They discuss and argue amongst themselves. What it shows beautifully is the appetite, the absolute hunger for learning about capitalism and society and the world of work; not least health and safety, and the fact that so little was available to them. So that's been a big influence on me.

Then, in terms of people, Alan Tuckett, Sir Alan Tuckett as he now is, who was the director of NIACE, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which has now become the Learning and Work Institute run by an excellent bloke called Stephen Evans, but Alan Tuckett was a real great inspiration. Still is. He's a friend. Lovely man. I learned a lot from him.

And I would say Rebecca, our Chief Executive. I've worked closely with Rebecca over the years, and she's been a real inspiration. She's terrific. She's got a really committed approach to the whole thing, but she's also very clever, very hardworking, works things out in a very organised way. I would say she's been another big inspiration too.

More News & Blog Posts