NCFE focuses on flexibility in benefits package

Educational charity NCFE has grown quickly over the past year, almost doubling its workforce. It is currently in the process of moving its headquarters from Newcastle-upon-Tyne city centre to a business park in the suburbs.

The transfer will have a direct impact on the benefits taken up by staff at the organisation, which was formerly known as the Northern Council for Further Education.

Michelle Sharman, HR manager at NCFE, says: “We are a growing organisation, which brings its own challenges. We are moving from a city centre location to a business park that is five miles outside the city centre. This will impact how employees are going to travel.

“We have quite a few benefits around how people travel, everything from interest-free loans for travel passes to a bikes-for-work scheme. A lot more people are planning to cycle to work, so [the move] will create a demand for that benefit.”

Sharman also expects the relocation to increase employee demand for flexible-working arrangements. NCFE’s policy for this is split into three areas: time for training opportunities, family-friendly options and lifestyle needs. About 30% of its staff currently work part-time or condensed hours.

“For some people, [the business park] is not that great a location, but we’re looking at how we can be flexible, how we can enable a greater amount of working from home, condensed hours and that sort of thing,” says Sharman. ”A big part of our benefits package is about flexible working and work-life balance.”

NCFE also offers employees the opportunity to retire flexibly, by stepping down into a role with less responsibility, reducing their hours, or keeping in touch with involvement in ad-hoc projects. “It is to make that transition into retirement easier,” says Sharman.

The time-to-train aspect of the organisation’s flexible-working policy is a reflection of what it does as an employer. For example, employees can access any NCFE qualification for free, up to a maximum cost of £400.

Drumming classes

NCFE childcare benefits

It also provides each employee with £200 each year for their own personal training and development, which can include activities such as sweet-making courses, dancing or driving lessons, and drumming classes. This year, Sharman herself obtained a Royal Yachting Association competent crew qualification.

“A big part of what we want from our employees is to be engaged,” she says. “We provide things that support them with their lives, such as the £200 development money. The purpose of that is to help people to be passionate about learning, but also pursue something that they’re passionate about, so they’re sharing that enthusiasm about learning and development.”

NCFE seeks to engage employees with its benefits package as soon as it advertises available roles, providing further information during the induction process. It also sends out seasonal benefits reminders, which are themed according to the time of year.

“It’s coming up to Christmas, so we have an online discounts scheme and we’ll be sending out where the highlights are,” says Sharman. “In the summer holidays, we send out communications saying childcare vouchers can be used for more than just children in nursery.”

Communications are also sent out to staff for new benefits. NCFE introduced a computer scheme, which enables employees to buy a laptop, desktop or tablet via a salary sacrifice arrangement, in September 2012. “That was based on demand from a few individuals, but what it’s supporting us with now, particularly with the move, is around more people who want to work from home,” says Sharman.

“There is space for everyone at the new office, so we aren’t in a position to give everyone laptops to enable them to do that, but what we can do is give them a computer scheme, so they’ve got the facilities at home if they choose to work from home and we’ve enabled them to purchase it in a cost-effective way.”

Auto-enrolment staging

NCFE auto-enrolment staging

NCFE’s next challenge is to prepare for its May 2014 pensions auto-enrolment staging date. Its finance team has been working on plans since February 2013, and intends to begin communicating with employees in December 2013 or January 2014.

The organisation will use its existing group personal pension (GPP), provided by Aegon UK, to comply with the legislation. The scheme has three tiers of contributions. NCFE matches employees’ contributions in a ratio of three to one, so the minimum 1% employee contribution garners 3% from the employer, 2% is matched at 6% and 3% is matched at 9%.

“We introduced the three different tiers because it had just been 3% and 9%, but some people felt they weren’t able to put the 3% in, so we wanted to make it achievable but also ensure they got something in return,” says Sharman.

Since the three-tiered contribution structure was introduced more than two years ago, pension scheme take-up has risen from about 45% to 78%.

NCFE also runs a peer-to-peer recognition scheme, in which employees have to meet criteria aligned with living the organisation’s values: stronger together, do the right thing, be the best, customer focused and make it happen. “It’s £2.50 on a gift,” says Sharman. “It’s a very small amount, but it means a lot to people when a colleague has made the effort and they have to go out and buy something they think that person would like.”

Employees can also be rewarded with £10 for putting forward ideas and suggestions through NCFE’s Inspiration Station. “If that idea is accepted, they get a reward,” says Sharman. ”The idea is implemented by the team that specialises in that area, or we mentor that individual through the process of developing that idea.”

Social committee

NCFE social committee

A social committee called Norman (Nights Out, Random Missions and Noodles) organises activities such as quiz nights, discounted days out, including Ladies’ Day at Newcastle racecourse, and charity fundraising days, for which NCFE doubles the amount employees raise for charity.

The organisation also offers staff a ’time bank’ for volunteering work. “Any hours employees put in, we match,” says Sharman. “So if they do four hours, two will be in their own time and two will be classed as working hours. This is available up to 24 hours, so 12 working hours and 12 hours of employee time.”

NCFE holds a casual meeting every Friday, when all employees enjoy a free drink while the chief executive talks them through the strategic points for that week. On the last day of every month, it holds a round-up, called News Bite, about what the teams have been up to and the organisation’s financial performance, complete with snacks.

“It’s not just about coming into work and getting the job done,” says Sharman. “It’s about being the person who will put forward the ideas, share with and support colleagues. In order to do that, our benefits are holistic in that there is something for all aspect of people’s lives, either in their work or in their personal life. That’s about supporting people to come to work and give their all, because all that other stuff is taken care of. And it’s also to recognise the extra effort people do put in.”

In its most recent employee engagement survey, which it ran in June 2013, NCFE recorded an engagement score of 89%. This year, it has received a gold standard from Investors in People and was ranked 15th among not-for-profit organisations in the Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies list.

“I have been at NCFE for seven years and we’re genuinely a great place to work,” says Sharman. “We want to be an employer of choice and want an offer to attract great people to work for us. The benefits package is a big part of that. We are about more than just paying a competitive salary. There are all the other things we have that enable us to be a great place to work and a unique place to work as well.”

NCFE at a glance

NCFE is a registered educational charity that dates back to 1848. It designs, develops and certifies a range of vocation-related qualifications and awards for colleges, schools and private training providers.

It became the NCFE in 1981 when the Northern Advisory Council for Further Education (NACFE), which had been created in 1947 to co-ordinate further education, merged with the Northern Counties Technical Examinations Council (NCTEC) to become the Northern Council for Further Education (NCFE).

When the further education sector became independent from government in the early 1990s, the organisation felt its old name was incompatible with its new national focus and has since been identified simply as NCFE.

Headquartered in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it has 200 employees, with 70 new starters in 2013. The average age of its employees is 34, and the gender split is 62.5% female, 37.5% male.


Business objectives impacting benefits

  • A virtuous circle that begins with engaging employees, leads on to valued customers, and then to the development and growth of the organisation.


Career history

NCFE Michelle Sharman

Michelle Sharman has been HR manager at NCFE for nearly five years. She joined the organisation seven years ago as an HR officer with particular responsibility around recruitment.

When she joined NCFE, it had 75 employees and a new HR team. Sharman says: “Part of the vision of the organisation was to have an HR team that was there to support the culture of the organisation, rather than in the past, when there was a feeling that HR was the police. We were brought in to support and develop engagement, and to help the business.”

Over the past year, Sharman and the rest of the HR team have played an integral part in NCFE’s external recognition, which includes a gold standard from Investors in People and 15th place among not-for-profit organisations on the Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies list.

“Those are the things I’m most proud of because they recognised us externally as a great place to work,” she says. “HR had a big part to play in that.”

Before joining NCFE, Sharman was HR manager at Connect Physical Health and HR assistant at Eaga Partnership.


Employee case study: Development and training allowance pays off

NCFE Ellie Jamieson

External quality assurance officer Ellie Jamieson has been at NCFE for four years. She joined as a temporary administration assistant, which was followed by a role in centre support, before taking up her current post in March 2012.

“We essentially performance-manage and support our external contractors,” says Jamieson. “These are the people who go out to our customers and make sure they’re running the qualifications OK. Our role is to support them in every way we can, which is anything from recruitment to training.”

Jamieson’s favourite benefit is the £200 annual allowance for personal development and training. Employees can spend the money on anything they choose. “It doesn’t have to be corporate,” she says. ”It can be fun stuff. It’s a great benefit.”

So far this year, Jamieson has used the allowance for a range of activities, including learning piano themes, glass blowing, face painting, sausage making, sushi making, yoga, henna, swing dancing, drumming and aikido, a martial art.

Following a recent aikido-related injury, she has also made use of acupuncture through NCFE’s employer-paid health cash plan.

“It’s a cause and effect of other benefits,” she says. “I used part of my £200 training allowance for a martial arts course and hurt my back, but I was able to use the health cash plan to fix it. It’s probably not something I would have considered if I had not had the luxury of having that benefit through work.”


The benefits


  • Group personal pension (GPP).
  • Contributions in three tiers: 1% employee contribution is matched at 3% by the employer, followed by 2:6 and 3:9 matching.
  • Auto-enrolment staging date is May 2014.


  • Employer-paid health cash plan available to all staff.
  • Annual onsite eye checks with an optometrist.

Group risk

  • Life assurance scheme, at four-times salary, linked to the pension scheme.


  • Performance-related bonuses: one linked to a target performance for the organisation and an individual one linked to each employee’s performance.


  • Job-need cars for the business development team.

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Voluntary benefits

  • Online discounts scheme.
  • Childcare voucher scheme.
  • Bikes-for-work scheme, available via a salary sacrifice arrangement.
  • Computer scheme.
  • Season ticket loans.
  • £200 allowance for personal development and training.

Other benefits

  • Flexible-working policies.
  • Options for phased retirement.
  • Social committee that organises events.
  • Time bank for volunteering days.
  • Enhanced maternity, paternity and adoption leave.
  • NCFE qualification for free, up to the value of £400.