Leadership and learning

Leadership and learning

07th September 2018

Matt O’Leary explores the role of leadership in improving the quality of teaching and learning in further education

Further education continues to endure one of the most challenging periods in its history. Over the last decade it has had to deal with swingeing cuts in government funding, mass redundancies, ever-increasing workloads and ongoing policy reform, all of which have left an indelible mark on the sector and its workforce. Yet, remarkably, despite these adversities, some would argue that FE continues to punch above its weight, with excellence in teaching and learning recognised in many providers, as evidenced by recent inspection results and research by the London School of Economics’ Centre for Vocational Education Research, highlighting the role of leadership in making a difference to learner outcomes. However, what is not yet fully understood is how leadership makes a difference to teaching and learning. Hence the need for a sector-specific research project to fill this gap in knowledge.

In February this year, a team of education research staff from Birmingham City University, led by me, was commissioned by FETL to carry out a project exploring the relationship between leadership and improvements in teaching and learning in FE. The project ‘The role of leadership in prioritising and improving the quality of teaching and learning in further education’ runs for a year until February 2019 and explores the interface between strategic thinking in leadership, its application at an operational level and how this connects to successful outcomes in teaching and learning. In doing so, the project also investigates how the impact and effectiveness of these activities are monitored and captured.

Underpinning the project’s conceptualisation of leadership is the idea that leadership is a shared responsibility that manifests itself in differing roles and guises across organisations. If we are to develop an in-depth and situated understanding of the role leadership plays in creating and sustaining an organisational culture that prioritises the continuous improvement of teaching and learning, then this requires the inclusion of multiple perspectives and not just those of senior leaders.

The project adopts a multi-method research design, providing a triangulated approach to understanding the research focus. This includes a purposive sample of three in-depth case studies of FE providers across England (consisting of an online survey, interviews, focus groups and documentary analysis), as well as interviews with prominent sector leaders and a national roundtable event.

May–July 2018 was a very busy period for the project team, as we travelled across the country collecting data from our three research case study sites. The first phase of the data collection comprised an online survey aimed at all teaching and teaching support staff in each of the three sites. This was followed by on-site visits to conduct a series of interviews with senior leaders of the participating institutions and focus groups with stratified samples of teaching and support staff. So far we have gathered an extremely rich bank of data, which we are currently in the process of analysing and writing up. Already strong themes are starting to emerge from our preliminary analysis of the data, which we hope to share in a follow-up blog later in the year.

Looking ahead, we are confident that the project report and findings of the research will make an important contribution to leadership thinking in FE and help to develop an understanding of what the successful leadership of teaching and learning looks like, strategically and operationally, in each of the three case studies, as well as the challenges faced in ensuring the improvement of teaching and learning remains a key priority. These can then be used to inform practice and develop greater awareness across the sector.


Matt O’Leary is Professor of Education in the Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences at Birmingham City University and is leader of the project, ‘The role of leadership in prioritising and improving the quality of teaching and learning in further education’. If you are interested in knowing more about the project please email Professor O’Leary for more details: matthew.o’leary@bcu.ac.uk.

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