Blogs + think pieces

Thinking beyond the here and now

01st November 2017

Martin Doel reflects on his first 18 months as the world’s first university professor in further education leadership

One of my great frustrations as Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges was the lack of time and space I had in which to think more deeply and with a longer-term view about key issues affecting further education and skills. In the face of successive cuts to funding, constant policy change and the resulting instability in the sector, our attention, of necessity, was almost exclusively on the here and now. For the same reasons, leaders within the sector, in providers of all kinds, found themselves focused on matters of institutional survival with little scope to lift up their heads and think long-term about the future.

When the Further Education Trust for Leadership established a professorial post in the Leadership of FE and Skills at University College London (UCL) Institute of Education (IoE) I jumped at the opportunity and was privileged to be selected as the first incumbent. The post held out the prospect of working with the sector and with academic colleagues at IoE to provoke and contribute to a more widely informed and deeper debate concerning the future of our sector, in its multitude of roles, and of being able to think beyond the here and now of the latest crisis or policy change.

My first full year in the role has been transitional and reflective. Although I had worked in a university before, to do so this time without a teaching role as an anchor and without a clear model to follow has been more of a challenge than I had thought. The temptation to dive back into the comfort of the here and now has been ever-present. Now, however, I have a clearer idea of what and is possible in this professorial role and how it might be achieved.

In line with FETL’s mission to strengthen and support the leadership of thinking in FE and skills, my aim is to contribute to a more self-confident and self-sustaining debate and reflection among leaders in FE and skills. My work complements the other strands of FETL activity: individual fellowships, project grants and commissioned reports. The particular advantage of being a professor in the world’s leading educational research university is the way in which I can work between the world of academia and practitioners in FE and skills, bringing the two together, both in my own research and writing and in the exchanges that I can facilitate.

Specifically, my efforts will fall into three main domains:

  • Writing and publishing my own thoughts and reflections based on research conducted in and with the sector and with colleagues in IOE and UCL, more generally. My interests in this regard focus on two areas: first, the problem of defining the distinctive contribution that FE as a sector or system makes to the prosperity and well-being of individuals, communities and the nation as a whole; second, the prospect of redressing the imbalance in our educational systems between academic study and the development technical and professional skills. The first of these interests will be the subject of a public lecture in the new year and I have already spoken at several conferences and seminars on the second.
  • Convening a series of roundtables for leaders in FE and skills that will introduce wider perspectives and concepts from academic fields outside the sector that can be the inspiration for fresh thinking within it. The first of these will be held early next year and will concern the concept of reciprocity and trust which seems to me critical if the future mode of behaviour in the sector is to be both collaborative and competitive.
  • Drawing together a series of essays into a publication entitled Next Steps for Further Education and Skills, which will have a 20-year horizon and will view the future through a series of dilemmas that the sector is likely face over that period.

I will also be looking to support those engaged in research in the sector and in academia. There is more research on the sector than I had appreciated while at the AoC, but little of it seems to reach its leaders. With more time to read and survey this work, I hope to be able to bring it to the attention of busy people in the sector and to draw upon it in my own work.

Martin Doel is FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills at UCL Institute of Education. He was previously Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.

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