The Way We Work

Paul Warner, AELP
November 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has asked difficult questions of us all, and nowhere more than in the education sector.

The obvious – and very important – story here is one of disruption and resilience, the capacity to adapt, among both staff and students, and the bravery and diligence of frontline workers. But the pandemic is also having a profound impact on how we think and feel about our roles and functions within the further education sector, as well as on how we conceptualise the sector’s wider purpose, and our own place in delivering and upholding that.

This is fascinating and largely unexplored territory, which is why the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) was keen to support the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) in this ambitious and timely study of the impact of the Covid crisis on the sector and, in particular, its effect on relationships and the authorities that underpin them. It is particularly important that we look beyond colleges and focus equally on the impact on independent providers in this. Too often, in our reflections about the sector, our gaze is splintered and our stories incomplete.

The impact of the pandemic on further education and skills is a hugely important topic, and I was personally very pleased that the AELP chose to focus the study, in part, on authorities and relationships. My own impression is that a new authority and confidence has indeed arisen among staff as they have striven to undertake both their everyday responsibilities and new complexities in facing and handling the crisis. In the process, new spaces were created in which agency could be exercised, effectively dispersing leadership to a greater extent than before within organisations.

This is true at the level of frontline staff, but also, I think, at the level of institutional leadership, where gaps in national leadership, perhaps inevitable in such fast-changing circumstances, have had to be filled in creative and enterprising ways at the level of the senior leadership team or even in workshops and classrooms (or virtual equivalents). A wider expression of this shift can be identified in the increasing tension between local and national leadership, which is again challenging long-standing ways of doing things in the UK (notably, the over-centralised nature of our politics and our tolerance of inequality), while laying bare some of the realities and limitations of the localism agenda.

Of course, it is far from clear what trends will stick and how things will further develop, against the backdrop of continuing lockdowns and economic uncertainty. But it is critical that we begin asking the questions now. This report begins that learning process by sharing what our colleagues have to say about the challenges they have encountered and how they have faced them. The report offers strong insight and opinions on this, showing, among other things, how, not for the first time, the most profound impact in education and training has been felt on the frontline.

We are still learning, and there is much more work to be done to understand fully the impact of the pandemic on further education. It is clear already, however, that some perceptions are changing, not least about the potential of technology in teaching and learning (and the capacities of providers to adapt), the nature of leadership within organisations and the importance of trust and agency, and the relationship between learning and inequality. We will be sifting through this for some time. But we must begin, as this study does, by listening and understanding the impact on the ground.

Dame Ruth Silver

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