Leading by Listening: the sector speaks for itself
The parallels abound, in Leading by Listening: Reflective Learning, my study of the FE sector that is published today: misunderstood by those in authority; forced into an ill-fitting educational straitjacket; assessed using crude and unfavourable measures; denied the flexibility and resources that could unlock their potential; feeling overwhelmed and undervalued; wracked with insecurity and self-doubt; under implicit pressure to game the system; struggling to make the best of what they’ve got; riven with destructive and self-harming behaviour; scarred with a sense of failure. Does this better describe the students, or the whole sector?
Leading by Listening, published by the think-tank FETL (Further Education Trust for Leadership) explores the mood and wellbeing of FE in 2019. It uses unedited quotes, with accompanying analysis, drawn from 33 confidential and anonymised conversations conducted with (separate groups of) students, teaching staff, support staff and college leadership teams, including three AoC regional groups of college leaders.
Participants discussed with each other what it felt like to be them, holding their particular role in FE at that moment. The conversations were unfacilitated, except when they broke down or went off-topic. The report identifies the themes and patterns that connect the discussions, based on a detailed sifting of fully 200,000 words of transcript.
At a meta-level, a clear trend was the thirst for conversation: so many groups wanted to continue after their hour was up, said how therapeutic they had found the experience or expressed a wish to hold more ‘Listening Posts’, as they are called, on a regular basis.
The need to talk is a healthy sign but not in itself a marker of wellness. Indeed, it might be a distress signal: an indication that the patient’s resilience is being sorely tested. Crying out will not make the pain go away; yet the knowledge that it has been heard and recognised can somehow make it easier to bear. In any event, the presenting symptom is chronic pain.
In Leading by Listening, the sources of pain are explored, in detail, and organised to show how group psychology works. In essence, this is that, whenever groups have to operate in challenging conditions, they cope at the cost of dysfunction in any of three directions – deviating from their purpose (through a misalignment between ends and means), losing touch with practical reality (through a misalignment between theory and practice) and becoming disharmonious (through a misalignment in relationships). In larger groups, such as a college or whole sector, it can be all three directions, in varying degrees.
A feature of Leading by Listening is the readiness of different groups to export blame: fingers are pointed at Whitehall by the leadership groups, at college leadership teams by their teaching and support staff, and at teaching and support staff by the students. The point is not that the externalisation of blame is always undeserved but that framing an issue in this way insulates the group from having to examine its own contribution to the predicament it faces.
Another feature of the report is deviation from purpose, often by the pursuit of narrow or short-term goals at the cost of longer-term objectives, producing institutional paralysis or stalemate. In Leading by Listening, it is strongly suggested that the Maths and English condition of funding is interfering with the primary purpose of colleges as pathways into vocational or technical employment, or into Higher Education.
There are also indications that the current funding regime is exacerbating the number of mismatched enrolments involving unsuitable students or unsuitable courses (including students enrolling to qualify for benefits, free travel or free equipment); and that the performance measurement regime is also incentivising not only the retention of absent or disruptive students but also ways of indirectly assisting students to pass their course (for example, by simplifying course content, widening SEND provision and turning a blind eye to cheating).
It is dysfunction of the third kind, however, that seems most acute in FE, and therefore most harmful to its wellbeing: disconnection from practical reality. From the discussions held in Leading by Listening, Principals and CEOs face daunting (reality-defying) financial and operational dilemmas; support staff are on their knees, overwhelmed by the explosion in students’ psychological, emotional and educational needs; teaching staff are at breaking point, expected to equip students with functional skills in English and Maths where schools have failed, and then assessed for the improvements they can show in retention, attendance, behaviour and achievement with reduced teaching hours, inadequate resources and increasing demands for management information.
Meanwhile, Ofsted is charged with the task of measuring something (contextualised performance) that is to all intents and purposes unmeasurable. Finally, some students are forced, like Sisyphus, to keep rolling an impossibly large GCSE boulder up the hill; others are enabled to gain qualifications without acquiring the skills employers want; and a further contingent are incapacitated by an ingrained dependency that leaves them unwilling or unable to be mobilised to make good use of their talents and aptitudes.
Overall, Leading by Listening paints a picture of the sector that is unvarnished because it is unfiltered – the views expressed come straight from the horse’s mouth, without needing to be whipped into shape by the jockey. Even so, its conclusions support the underlying rationale for the research. This was a hunch – call it an hypothesis if you prefer a fancier title – that developing resilience is an unacknowledged area of expertise within FE, based on its track record in ‘turnaround’ stories, in which students are helped to come to terms with the limitations that have held them back (whether emotional, psychological, social, educational, domestic or other), and make progress along the pathway towards becoming productive and self-reliant members of society.
What seems clear in Leading by Listening, though, is that the enhanced wellbeing of the students is now coming at an increasing (dare I say, unacceptable) cost to the wellbeing of the staff, notwithstanding the pride and satisfaction they may derive from their accomplishments. The response to this by certain colleges has been to treat the symptoms because they are unable to treat the cause.
If I am permitted one observation of my own, rather than letting the sector speak entirely for itself, the principal cause seems to me to be not so much financial constraints as the system of performance measurement to which colleges and students are subject. The Ofsted evaluation schedule, as with the high-performance culture adopted by some colleges, is responsible for creating failure as well as success by seeking to measure the extent by which a given standard of adequacy is or is not met. This kind of measurement cannot take account of the turbulence within the system that affects performance but is beyond the control of those being measured.
For students, it may be dysfunctional home lives, emotional turmoil, basic needs not being met or the tendency to be overwhelmed by pressure or anxiety during events of great importance to them. For colleges, it may be problems with staff recruitment or absence, loss of funding, higher levels of student need, increases in the proportion of students at Levels 1 and 2, or any other of a number of issues. The effective and useful measure in all cases is not excellence but reliability: how consistently do students – and, by extension, colleges – show progress, year on year, in terms of meeting (or exceeding) the required standard of adequacy in terms of attendance, behaviour and educational achievement? Distinctions, merits and ‘Outstanding’ ratings can wait. The first and most important measure of progress is consistency. If there is a consistent message to be gleaned from Leading by Listening, it is this.
Sandy Henderson is an organisational consultant, coach, researcher and writer. He was the Director of OPUS from 2016 to 2019.