The leadership challenge we all face

The leadership challenge we all face

29th August 2014

I've always been interested in the language of government documents and have a particular liking for the use of the first person plural. In one of the many skills strategies of the Noughties I recall the word "we" being used no less than twenty-four times. "This is what we need to do," we were exhorted. "These are the challenges we all face."

In his brief foreword to a recent consultation from the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, Nick Boles, the new Minister for Skills & Equalities, uses “we”, “our” or “us” nine times.

So what? you ask.  How is someone meant to write these things? You cannot be seen to tell everyone else to shape up.  You have to be seen to be in this thing together.

So in such documents “we” is used indiscriminately to mean we-the-people, we-your-elected-government, we-the-sector, we-professionals etc. When learners are mentioned, they are usually, well, “they”.

What is the point of all this rather basic linguistic analysis?  Well I think it gets to the heart of one of the wicked issues with further education and skills policy.  This is that despite the inclusive rhetoric of forewords to government documents–and there have been some very good ones over the years by David Blunkett and John Hayes–the rest of the text seems to be all about what “the sector” has to do.

Once “we” have set the parameters for discussion and analysed the problem, then it is the job of others to do something about it.  In my view part of this comes from us conceiving of FE and skills as a “sector” rather than a “system.”  The sector theory is hard to conceive, embracing as it does multinational companies, national colleges, land-based and residential colleges, training providers, adult educators, local government, trades unions, third sector organisations, large and small.  It is a wonderfully diverse collection of providers who reach and transform the lives of millions of people every year, but it is hardly a sector.

In England we have a vibrant skills system, which encompasses all the elements above, and crucially central government as well as the employers and individuals who put their hands in their pockets to fund it.  And it is not a closed system, having links with employment and health agencies, as well as a myriad of subcontracting arrangements between its constituent parts.  So to see it as a “sector” of organisations and institutions gives the wrong message, and the wrong sort of leadership challenge.

Between 2010 and 2012 I worked on the independent commission of inquiry into the role of colleges in their communities chaired by Baroness Sharp.  Her final report outlined a number of recommendations for college leaders, but it also said that leadership was a challenge we all faced—professional membership bodies and government agencies alike.  That element of the Sharp Report seems to have been forgotten.

Since then much of my research has shown that the very best provision has been facilitated by great leadership by learning providers in partnership with others–the NHS, Nissan UK, JCP come to mind–as well as by the Skills Funding Agency.  Where provision has been less successful, or there had been no provision addressing need, it was down to these partnerships not working.

So whose fault was that?  One could argue that learning providers needed to be better at making partnerships and making them work for learners.  In some areas that was undoubtedly the case.  But in others I have seen strong leaders stymied by a skills system that lacks ambition and government staff unable to see their way through the red tape to the sort of courses that address learner and employer need.

I hope I am not wrong that in the use of the second person plural, we may see a move away from sector-thinking to systems-thinking.  But that requires all players to step up to the plate—not just learning providers.

So it is good to see Nick Boles saying we are on “a journey of recalibrating the way we all think about success in adult vocational education.”  In that I see a glimmer of recognition that we are all on journey together and leadership is a challenge we all face.

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