Blog: Infrequently asked questions - Mark Ravenhall

Blog: Infrequently asked questions - Mark Ravenhall

05th December 2014

There's just a week to go before applications for our first Grants Programme close. As with the FETL Fellowships Programme there has been a great deal of interest from organisations working in or with UK further education and skills.

Some people who ring our office merely want to talk about the mechanics of applying: deadlines, processes, terms and conditions etc. Others are up for a philosophical debate about the sort of things FETL is interested in funding. I may have said this before: this is the best part of my job. It is encouraging to hear that so many people are thinking about new solutions to perennial problems.

It has been said that FE is so used to doing the government’s bidding—research to implement ‘their’ reforms of the sector—that we have lost the skill of imagining that things could be different, or indeed that things are different elsewhere.

The most common example I use is that instead of researching how to get a better inspection result, why not do a thinkpiece on whether better outcomes for learners and employers (the point of the skills system, after all) actually requires an inspectorate. Should Ofsted exist? Does the system need it? Discuss.

Not in a pejorative sense. But in a measured, well-researched, well-referenced and balanced way.

That is the sort of question we should be asking, but currently they are infrequently asked.


I also get asked what does FETL mean by the leadership of thinking? As this is a phrase that has a degree of immunity to being googled, I thought I’d be asked this question more frequently.

For FETL, the leadership of thinking is about how leaders encourage and develop capacity for thought in their people, and in the systems they work within.  We believe that a key role of leaders of further education and training, at all levels, is to encourage thinking and debate amongst their colleagues about their practices, with students and stakeholders about the world they enter and handle.

This is about curiosity, encouraging discussions on difference, supportively questioning the status quo, and therefore is at the heart of great, progressive organisational performance especially in the pedagogy of vocational and technical education.

That is why FETL would like to help develop initiatives that enable people working in FE to re-imagine their work, refit it for the coming challenges, and confidently rebuild our futures.

This is distinct from the ‘leadership of doing’; FETL does not fund leadership skills development or research programmes rooted in the here and now. Last year I was struck by an example from the schools sector where the researcher talked about not focusing on curriculum leadership, but the “leadership of thinking about the curriculum as a whole” (Alexander, R. National College for School Leadership, 2013). In other words, let’s spend less time looking at curriculum leadership in isolation, and more on the leadership of thinking about doing the very best with the curriculum and its intentions in its entirety.

That is the sort of broader thinking that other sectors benefit from, and FETL is there to encourage more of in FE.


For us, a thinkpiece is any short document published online, in print or in other media that sets out a new piece of thinking. Although it may be opinionated, it is not a pure opinion piece. We would expect to see some referencing of other research, as well as an awareness of the perspective from which your thinking originated. Tell us how you will go about your thinking, how you will write it up, who will read it, and how it will make a difference.


As I said earlier, FETL does not fund leadership development programmes. However, we realise that as part of the development of new thinking it is necessary to get people together to discuss options. In such cases, a seminar’s main aim will not be to develop the leadership skills of participants, although that will, no doubt, be part of the informal learning that takes place. It is good to get people together to discuss, think, learn from each other, but consider the impact of this: how will this new thinking benefit UK FE?

Thanks again to all who have contacted FETL over the grants programme. Keep the questions coming in.  If you are interested in applying for a grant, remember you have until midday on 12th December 2014 to get your application in. The process for applying and eligibility criteria are on this website.

Good luck!

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