Blogs + think pieces

Leverage Leadership in FE and Skills

07th December 2016

Dr Steve Lambert a Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership at the University of Chester talks about his research for FETL and the Fellowship experience

The past 20 years of my career have been spent in further education. Initially as a teacher then as a middle and latterly senior leader within colleges in the South of England. That wasn’t the beginning of my engagement in the FE sector, having been a student in the early 90s studying on the then National Certificate in Engineering in Bristol. Yet since those early days Further Education has been a thread that has run through my career and even when I left the last college that I worked in, my career remained firmly rooted within the post-16 sector, working for the then Learning and Skills Council and more recently in local government.

The path that I am now on is in higher education, not as any disloyalty to further education, but in order to explore in greater depth leadership in further education. Compared to compulsory education and indeed higher education, FE is under researched and often forgotten by academics. However, FE plays such an important role in the fabric of the UK education system. It is as complex as it is diverse from small specialist institution to colleges serving large metropolitan areas all of whom make a significant contribution to the UK economy.

The FETL fellowship is unique in education by solely focusing on leadership. Many grant awarding organisations have a very broad remit focusing on current trends or responses to government policies. It was this single focus which attracted me to apply for the fellowship. The application process was straightforward and I was subsequently invited to present my proposal to the funding committee. Daunting, but incredibly friendly, albeit challenging, and rightly so. I came away feeling exhilarated and knowing that if I was awarded a fellowship I would have earned it. In fact, I was awarded one of the two fellowship and then the real work began.

I was interested in the US idea of Leverage Leadership which had resulted in significant increases in student performance in a variety of schools across America. Could these ideas be transferred to the UK FE sector? Why? Well, schools in the UK are generally well supported through academy chains and trusts, local authorities and various raising standards groups that they can all participate in. Yet, little exists for FE: instead we often work in isolation from others because of the free market that FE colleges operate in.

The FETL fellowship has provided the space in which to conduct a high-quality piece of research on an area of leadership. It’s not just the intellectual space that they provided but the ongoing support from colleagues at UCL’s Institute of Education has been key. Ideas have been discussed and assumptions challenged, but all within a supportive framework. Key to the success of my research was the access provided to a number of high profile principals from around the country. The generosity of their time was invaluable in discussing the issues raised and the possible ways forward.

As a result of this piece of research new ideas on leadership for the further education sector have been formed. The model proposed Distributed Leverage Leadership could offer an intervention tool for colleges looking to raise standards.  Further work is needed across more institutions and there is scope for a case study to look at its implementation, but certainly without the support of FETL we would not be where we are today.

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