Why FE needs to respect its elders

Many communities around the world place a great value on the wisdom of their elders – but further education, it seems, isn’t one of them. When a principal with long service retires, their decades of experience are usually lost to the sector for ever. But that could change with a new proposal to create a ‘council of elders’ who could help to guide today’s leaders through an increasingly treacherous college landscape, write Julia Belgutay and Kate Parker
19th July 2019, 12:03am
Fe Must Respect Its Elders


Why FE needs to respect its elders


In many cultures, elders are at the heart of families and communities - respected, valued, supported and relied on for their wisdom and experience. In Native American culture, for example, elders are seen as repositories of knowledge, passing on essential information and tradition to future generations.

In Aboriginal societies, “one is designated an elder after acquiring significant wisdom and experience”. Elders have even found their way into the education sector, with a curriculum proposal for Ontario in Canada defining them in the 1990s as “men or women who, recognised by others, possess knowledge of original stories, values and the history of communities and nations”.

The most prominent example of elders influencing communities and using their wisdom is The Elders, a group of former heads of state, lawyers and activists founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007. Its members view themselves as “independent global leaders working together for peace, justice and human rights”. The group engages on a broad range of subjects, from the use of fossil fuels to conflict prevention, and has the ear of world leaders.

The UK’s further education sector, however, has been less successful at utilising the decades of crucial experience that disappear when a principal retires. Some former college leaders hold prominent posts in the sector, from Richard Atkins, the further education commissioner, to Sir Frank McLoughlin, associate director of leadership at the Education and Training Foundation.

The sector has had little broader engagement with its departed leaders, however - despite there being no shortage of experienced leaders exiting FE in recent years. The rate of such departures has accelerated due to the increase in mergers that followed the government’s area review process - 61 college-to-college mergers and two university-college mergers have taken place since 2015, and more are on the horizon. In many cases, this has led to experienced college principals taking the opportunity to retire.

Their experience is unique, too. According to data from the Education and Training Foundation, only 2 per cent of college staff are senior managers, making hands-on experience of running a college and navigating the ever-changing FE policy landscape a rare commodity.

So using that knowledge and wisdom of elders, particularly in supporting college leaders who often find themselves isolated, could be a crucial step towards a more stable system. The idea of a “council of elders” for FE has been floated by Dame Ruth Silver, president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership. Earlier this year, she wrote in Tes: “The Elders … work together ‘for peace and human rights’.

“It is easy to scoff at such interventions and to question the motives and good faith of those involved, and I offer no opinion on the success or otherwise of this organisation, or on the qualifications of its respective members.

“I am more concerned with the guiding idea that there is a need for an independent, worldly wise stewarding body/oversight organisation made up of senior figures that represent the collective memory, knowledge and experience of a sector or tradition, and its applicability to further education and skills.”

Another example of elders being used as a source of wisdom is in the Church of Scotland, says Silver. “I saw this group of people from the local church helping people. They didn’t do formal, bureaucratic meetings. They helped an old lady clear her path when it was snowing, for example. I was very taken by how elders were people who were there to do what was needed.”

Silver says that, following the death of her father when she was 15, it was the local miners’ union that supported her and her mother.

“I grew up everywhere noticing the importance of being a good neighbour,” she explains. “Trade unions as elders, neighbours as elders. My definition of an elder, and this is personal: elders are people who walk with you and who talk with you about what you’re experiencing. People who speak from their experience of success and failure, and they walk with you.”

In the context of further education, she believes that elders could lend that support to a sector facing increasing financial challenges and uncertainty. “Elders are not set up by governments - they are a group of people who have failed as well as succeeded, who get together.

“The progress on elders needs to come from the people out there saying this is a good idea. This is not to be set up or managed by anybody; these are elders from the system, who think it’s a good idea and say its good idea.”

Silver adds that elders would be “about the system and the sector”. Membership bodies such as the Association of Colleges and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers are highly effective, she stresses, and the primary focus of elders, in her view, “would be that they are there to advise so that we can stop making mistakes that damage institutions and individuals”.

And indeed, the sector’s membership organisations across the UK are starting to consider in more detail how the experience of retired leaders, and long-standing leaders still working in further education, can be used more effectively (see box, opposite).

At a more informal level, some former principals are already using their decades of expertise to support their peers. Annette Bruton, Lifetime Achievement Award winner at this year’s Tes FE awards, retired as principal of Edinburgh College last year after almost four decades in the public sector.

Having initially taken a break from further education, she is now supporting another large Scottish college in financial difficulty. One day a week, Bruton is at this college (which she does not wish to name) offering advice and guidance on its medium- and long-term transformation plans and cultural change - both key areas of work that she focused on in her time at Edinburgh College. “If you have retired after a long career, you shouldn’t feel required to do work, but it is a bit of a shame if you don’t utilise your experience to help,” she says.

While some aspects of the journey at the college she is supporting are similar to what Edinburgh College went through after its merger - when it hit a multimillion-pound deficit - the context, she stresses, is different.

In her work as a “critical friend” to the college, Bruton says she not only draws on her experience as a principal, but also on “40 years in the public sector”, including roles as a teacher, chief inspector of education and chief executive of the Care Inspectorate.

She says many principals form social groups that can lend great pastoral support. This isn’t just useful to a college in crisis. Professional support to prepare for things like an Ofsted inspection can be offered by a mentor - or elder.

“It can help to reduce the fear of the inspector coming up the path if you do a bit of a pre-MOT,” says Bruton. “I think the sector needs to protect itself against being taken by surprise. That will work best if everyone is in this with a common purpose.” Crucially, however, she adds, principals “need to be open to the value of criticism”.

Even her support work has changed her perspective, Bruton explains. “You are deluding yourself if you think it is the same doing the work with people as it is carrying the can. You need a bit of humility.

“What you can bring is something that rises beyond the day to day and that helps people focus on things that are critical. Colleges focus on thousands of things at the same time, but there are really half a dozen things that make a difference - and you can remind people of that.

“You have experience where you can suggest to people not to focus on one problem versus another. It may be that the problem they have hardly noticed is the one that will sneak up and bite them. Solving the really hard problems is what transforms a college, not always the ones that are yelling at management really loudly.

“There is a lot of value in people helping. The thing I would caution against is to bang on about how you would have done things when you were a principal. I was asked to help because of my experience, so there is a fine line between drawing on my experience and getting them to repeat something in potentially a very different context.”

There is also a time limit on the usefulness of an elder, Bruton believes: “The idea of a council of elders is something great to draw on, but I think you need to think about periods of efficacy.” Former leaders have a lot to contribute, she adds, but that expertise does not last forever.

“There is a point where your efficacy starts to drop away, the further you go away from your day-to-day experience of the job.

“To start with, you can give helpful advice on the basis of what you have done, and there is an extension of that where you can be helpful on the basis of not just what you have done, but also on what you have seen subsequently. There is a period where you can do that with some degree of authority.”

However, that period does not continue indefinitely: “Some people think that your experience will last, but I think the world moves on and you have to know yourself.”

Bruton says some former leaders might see the opportunity in continuing to offer consultancy once that efficacy disappears, but “this is not something I am interested in”.

Ian Ashman agrees that self-awareness of when one’s expertise is no longer relevant is crucial. Ashman stepped down as principal of Hackney Community College in 2016, having worked in the sector since 1993, to serve as Association of Colleges president for a year. Since 2017, he has mentored and coached FE managers.

“I think the idea of a council of elders is a really interesting one,” he says. “People talk about the principal’s job as being the loneliest in FE - and it is. Even if you have a network of principals around you.

“It is really crucial for principals that they have a menu of different types of support they can take up. There will be things that are very personal to an individual, where having the support of someone else outside is really helpful.”

Ashman explains that as part of an early training programme for principals, he himself had access to a mentor for a couple of years, and “found that really helpful”.

“There is nothing new [that college leaders are being faced with],” he says. “There are lots of people who have difficult relationships with their chair or a senior colleague, or you might have made a bad decision.”

However, he adds: “I do have some reservations [about the proposed role of elders in FE]. The sector changes so much and so quickly, so the dangers are even greater than they were.”

Trusting former principals with a system that they are no longer part of is also something that the University and College Union is concerned about. Andrew Harden, the UCU’s head of further education, says “short-sighted policy tinkering in further education is in nobody’s interests, but there is no silver bullet for solving the issues faced by the sector”.

He continues: “Any advisory group should include the voices of ordinary staff and students, as well as principals. Retaining expertise within further education is important, but this should start with addressing the issues of funding, low pay and job insecurity that mean many staff simply can’t afford to stay in the sector.”

If a council of elders were introduced in FE, its members would not need to be “old”, stresses Silver. “The elders are not about age, they’re about experience. Experience that they gift to the world through their value system.

“[It’s] nothing to do with age of people - it’s about their experience of success and failing, a sense that they have ideas of how things could be better. They want them to be better so they will work to make that happen.”

Julia Belgutay is deputy FE editor at Tes. She tweets @JBelgutay. Kate Parker is an FE reporter at Tes. She tweets @KateeParker

This article originally appeared in the 19 July 2019 issue under the headline “Respect your elders”

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