Why there aren't enough outstanding college principals

If we want more great college leaders then we need to provide more support and development, says the AoC's David Hughes
28th October 2019, 5:36pm


Why there aren't enough outstanding college principals

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After a decade of austerity, we need to pay more attention to the impact it has had on college leaders and our attitude to college leadership. Colleges have had to face cuts of 30 per cent to revenue, banks calling in loans, pension funds increasing their demands, competitors fighting for students in a shrinking demographic, wage costs rising and no increases in funding rates for over seven years.

The impacts of all of this are far-reaching and, at the Association of Colleges, we have fought hard to show the effects on student teaching hours, student support, staff pay, reduced capital and IT investment and a shrinking of learning opportunities across the country. Thankfully, the neglect of colleges has been recognised by the prime minister, the chancellor and the education secretary, as well as think tanks, policy wonks, the CBI and the Russell Group. With the announcement of £500 million for colleges in the latest spending round, the decade of cuts is beginning to be redressed. However, it's less than 20 per cent of what has been cut let alone what is needed to have a post-16 education and training system to match our Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development competitors.

Another impact of the funding cuts is the very high number of college mergers, bringing the number of colleges down from well over 300 to under 250. The drivers for this are mixed: area reviews recommended some, and others happened off the back of severe financial distress or where quality had begun to suffer.

Read more: Commissioner recommends single college for Cornwall

More news: Almost £60m of loans to FE colleges waived

Background: Colleges could face local area reviews by FE commissioner

College mergers aren't the only answer

Merger has come to be viewed as one of the two main remedies for colleges struggling to cope with the 30 per cent average cut in funding. The other, which is linked, is to presume that new leadership will be able to "sort out the problem". The link between the two is that research has shown that mergers rarely save money and therefore the presumed benefit is often that new leadership will prevail where "weak" leadership failed.

This presumption needs more attention and debate. There are three sets of questions I'd like to discuss and debate within the sector and with government in order to create the best environment in which colleges can thrive.

  1. How come some college leaders are doing an outstanding job? And how many outstanding leaders can any sector expect to have?
    This is the question I get asked most often by new ministers and new officials, and it's a tough one to answer. There's no doubt that we are blessed by many outstanding leaders in the college sector. People who use their expertise, experience and entrepreneurial spirit alongside their values and commitment to students and communities to deliver brilliant things. I remain astonished at how they manage, despite all the stresses. Imagine what they could do with fair funding. In every walk of life, some people are simply better than others at what they are doing - look at any sector to find a range of performance and results - and even the best leaders struggle sometimes, or in some circumstances. Every leader is running fast to be as good as they can be, so a simple mistake, a change in circumstances or bad luck can often derail organisations that operate on very thin margins.
    One look at the private sector will show how true this is. We've recently seen the abject failure of Carillion and Thomas Cook and we've also seen in the past decade some success stories stuttering or failing; Tesco, John Lewis, G4S, Northern Rock, Virgin, Barclays, etc.
    The two things to learn from this are that, firstly, there will never be enough outstanding individuals to run every organisation in any sector and that, secondly, things change and even the best leaders sometimes struggle to cope. The outstanding leader of today can easily be the "failure" of tomorrow as conditions change, mistakes are made, trends are not seen early enough, competitors dig into your market share or solutions don't work quickly enough. The best leaders are the ones who learn from setbacks, mistakes and bad experiences.
  2. How can we develop support for existing leaders to be able to cope with extremely tough financial stress? How do we find the right balance between support and intervention, particularly when intervention all too often results in leaders losing their jobs?
    So if you're with me in believing that there will never be enough outstanding leaders and that leading a college has been extremely tough for some time now, you'll also be keen to support existing leaders to cope, to lead and to thrive. There are so many scenarios where it would be argued that a college has done nothing wrong and it gets into trouble. Sixth forms or HE providers opening on your patch, an apprenticeship growth strategy stymied by inadequate funding, staff taking extended strike action because of years of frozen pay, or the bank loan your predecessor took for capital to support expected growth is increasingly unaffordable because the growth funding never materialised. To name a few.
    In those scenarios, we need leaders to be supported to identify the challenge early, develop a strategy and to implement carefully. Unfortunately, it feels now that many leaders are wary of seeking support because of the fear of intervention resulting in them losing their livelihoods. We need to change that and find ways to make asking for help a "safe" option rather than a scary one: asking for help from peers, from the regulator and from others. We know from experience that the earlier challenges are faced up to, the easier it is.
  3. Where do outstanding leaders come from? And how can we support more people into becoming outstanding leaders?
    So, we know that we'll always struggle to have every leader being outstanding all of the time - challenges and changes in circumstances get in the way of that. We also know that we need to support every leader to be the best that they can be, continuously and particularly when challenges become extreme. We need to find ways for every leader to learn themselves and from each other what works and how to avoid problems.
    We also know that we need a steady stream of people moving through the ranks, from diverse backgrounds that represent our communities and from other sectors to refresh as leaders retire. Development programmes from the AoC and the Education and Training Foundation help with this and we must encourage participation in leadership development from all levels in colleges. Our Four Nations College Alliance is developing a shadowing programme for senior staff on their pathways to leadership and many colleges have their own development programmes. All are crucial.
    Development programmes are not enough, though, when there is the perception that leadership roles in colleges are too risky. Sadly, we know, that many second-tier post holders in colleges are delaying moving into the ultimate leadership role because they cannot afford to lose their job. That's very sad, and something as a sector we need to overcome fast.

There are many other issues to bring into this debate - governance, funding, accountability frameworks, targets, whether we want to continue with a competitive education system and many others. More funding overall will help, but, ultimately, colleges need a new relationship with government. One in which partnership and support are much stronger and there is a shared endeavour to meet the long-term post-16 education and skills needs of all our communities, people and labour markets. One in which asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength. In which every leader can improve and learn and help others to as well.

Getting that relationship right is not easy, but it is something we should all be focused on as we enter a probable general election campaign, followed by a spending review.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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