Ahead of the curve

February 4, 2019

Brenda McLeish was born in Stockton-on-Tees and now lives in Hartlepool. She joined Learning Curve Group in 2008 and as CEO has led the national education and training company’s growth to an impressive £42 million turnover. Having recently been nominated for a Northern Power Women award, Brenda met Alison Cowie at Learning Curve’s brand new purpose-built headquarters in Spennymoor, to discuss the company’s astonishing upward trajectory

Tell me a bit about your background and career…
I started my career in education and by the time I was 28 I was a senior manager at a Teesside FE [further education] college. I was then headhunted by Learning Curve Group in 2008. At that time, the business had 40 staff and was turning over around £1 million. I joined as a business development director and became a managing director when Learning Curve opened its skills academies. In 2013, I became group managing director and CEO in 2015.

What attracted you to Learning Curve Group?

What attracted me to the private sector was the ability to make change very quickly. From 2008 to now, Learning Curve has grown to a £42 million turnover and we now have 420 employees and around 600 associate staff.

How do you describe what Learning Curve does?

Learning Curve provides training for more than 100,000 individuals a year, working with over 4500 employers, predominately in health and social care, management, hospitality, construction and retail sectors. But we’re not just a training company. We have a publishing company and sell around 120,000 learning resources/ products a year. We also work with 160 further education colleges, and private providers, to offer recruitment services, curriculum development and consultancy.

How do people engage in the training that you do?

We have training academies in Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Wakefield, Sheffield and Leeds. We
also provide distance learning courses with around 5500 sign-ups a month– although we call it flexible learning as the learners still get access to tutors.

How do you support FE colleges?

We currently work with around 160 FE colleges and we do this in several ways. Firstly, we sub- contract funding to provide training and we sell them our learning resources. Our recruitment company also works with them on any employment concerns and recruitment issues and we do consultancy work, too. Although we’re a training provider, we don’t compete with colleges. We collaborate with them and are currently in negotiations with Teesside University and local FE colleges about a strategic partnership to provide a fully-comprehensive offering to the people of Tees Valley.

How do you ensure your services fulfil skills gaps?

We are constantly talking to employers to figure out what their staff needs are and we’ve got our own curriculum development team whose sole job is to write new products to meet skills gaps.

For example, in the NHS, every time someone does something in a hospital they have to enter a code on a system to secure the required funding. We’re working with NHS trusts to write a qualification to support hospital employees who might not have those digital skills.

We’ve also written a new data protection and security qualification that came out of GDPR rules, which came into force last May.

We’re always listening to what employers and the public need and writing qualifications to suit. We’re not just a skills provider, we offer bespoke solutions to sectors, which means we can be at the forefront of meeting those skills gaps.

Your staff are often referred to as ‘purple people,’ reflecting Learning Curve’s branding. How did this come about?

What’s great is that it was the staff that came up with ‘purple people’ – it wasn’t something that came from the top down.

It started years ago. Staff started referring to themselves as purple people and it just stuck. It’s great because he helps them feel like they belong to something and it helps to instil our values, too.

You also recently launched your Purple Academy…

We’ve always hired apprenticeships – some of our best people started as temps – but we wanted to grow this offering and further practice what we preach. The academy was launched in September and we took on 25 16-year-olds into the business. We’re teaching them all about the different jobs in the business with the aim of progressing them to a full-time, non-apprentice position. The enthusiasm and the energy from these young people is great and we’ll be taking on our second cohort this September.

What impact has the Apprenticeship Levy had on Learning Curve Group? 

We currently have around £11 million worth of Apprenticeship Levy contracts in place but the introduction of the levy has been a challenge.

It’s caused a lot of confusion among employers and apprenticeship starts have actually reduced since it was introduced. There hasn’t been enough communication [by Government].

Changes to the Apprenticeship Levy were announced by the Chancellor in the latest Budget. Will they help the situation?

There was an announcement that the non-levy apprenticeship funding fee would reduce from ten to five per cent. It hasn’t been implemented yet but it’s a positive move. Since January, Learning Curve is beginning to see lot more traction with employers but I think there needs to be a lot more flexibility and much more knowledge about what the Apprenticeship Levy is and what it isn’t. We need to remove some of the misnomers and, as a company, we will be holding events throughout this year to help educate employers.

What about Brexit?

A lot of companies – for example in the care sector – are seeing some big issues around recruitment. European workers have decided to leave, no matter what happens with Brexit. As a result, companies are really struggling to find staff but we’ve been working with providers to put together pathway programmes that are really focused on their skills needs.

As you’ve mentioned, Learning Curve has grown from a £1 million turnover to a £42 million business in the last 10 years. Part of this growth has been through acquisitions. Can you tell me about the companies you’ve acquired and what impact these have made on Learning Curve Group?

The group has engaged in three acquisitions since I joined in 2008. We purchased a publishing business in 2012, which gave us the opportunity to diversify into learning product sales. We then bought a recruitment business – Workwise Personnel – which provided us with a
knowledgeable ‘learn-and find’ call centre team to deliver recruitment services.

In October 2018, we also bought training company Profound Group. This acquisition is allowing us to diversify our portfolio into new sectors such as property, transport and logistics. It’s also helping with succession and leadership planning; the CEO from Profound is now our COO.

What are your plans for 2019?

Our work with unemployed individuals grew by 150 per cent last year and we will be continuing to grow this in 2019. We will also open two new academies for hair and beauty training in Q1 – one in Manchester and one in Hartlepool. We’re also launching our Education Academy, which will provide learning and teaching experience and qualifications to vocational experts. Four new learning products will be available in 2019 and we will also be looking at ways to grow our Apprenticeship Levy provision.

It was recently announced that you’d joined the board of the Tees Valley Local Enterprise Partnership. What were your personal reasons for this?

Being from Teesside, I’m very keen about what happens in the Tees Valley. I’ve joined at quite an exciting time with the devolved budgets, particularly around adult learning. It’s important that companies such as Learning Curve are involved in what’s happening in local authority areas. We need to be at that table, helping to inform what the skills agenda needs are. It’s fundamental to the success of the Tees Valley.

Learning Curve Group
www.learningcurvegroup.co.uk
@_LearningCurve

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