Wanted: more thinking about leadership in FE and skills - Jessica Bridgman
The NAO’s recent report on the financial sustainability of the further education sector found that there are a significant number of colleges who are facing financial difficulty. More shocking is the rate at which colleges are falling into difficulty, from 2010/11 to 2013/14 the number of colleges reporting an operating deficit increased from 52 to 110.
The report identified a number of risks to colleges’ financial sustainability: changing labour markets, demographics, increased competition etc. One of the most interesting, in my opinion, was the shortage of change management skills in leaders and principals of colleges.
The skillset of a principal in a struggling FE College is broad and demanding. Leading a college through policy reform and financial difficulty, whilst maintaining high quality vocational education and support for students, is challenging, that is obvious. It is different to leading a university which has protected funds, and schools who have longer term budgets. Colleges are independent organisations, reliant on their governance and internal procedures to keep them afloat, but at the same time are very dependent on government funding which can change on whim of a minister.
We see very good leaders at a range of different providers, but thinking behind leadership needs improving. There is a lot of theory on leadership generally, but not as much specifically for those who work in these environments that are walking such a tightrope of managing change, seeking innovation and competing with other providers. If this theory were better developed, we would have a better understanding of how to acquire, or seek out the skills the NAO says are in short supply in the sector.
FETL is breaking ground in this area. Jim Krantz, a great thinker on leadership, spoke at their inaugural lecture, breaking away from traditional thought patterns that extol individuals’ qualities and behaviours, and looking at leadership as an aspect of the wider system. Thinking of leadership as an outcome or an output of the system it is in allows for a range of influencing factors, such as context and situations that create leaders, to be account for. This view could enable leadership to be fostered at a range of different levels within an organisation, by looking at the different contexts and situations where leadership is flourishing.
His full speech, which you can find here, is full of observations looking forward beyond the current conceptions of leadership, relating them specifically to the FE sector (drawing on his experience with the community college model in America) and deepening our collective understanding of leadership in FE.
The NAO’s report said that leadership in FE needs more support and development, I hope they realise that there is a body right here which has tasked itself with improving the thinking around leadership, and keep a watchful eye on FETL’s outputs.