Calling the next generation of college leaders

Both experienced and up-and-coming college leaders need support for the sector to thrive, says Shelagh Legrave

College leaership: We need to support new leaders in FE - but also encourage experienced principals, writes Shelagh Legrave

Being a leader in a further education college can be challenging. Leaders must set out a clear strategic vision for their college and work to foster learning environments that are rooted in local communities.

As colleges have grown larger, through mergers or diversification, so too has the role of the college principal/chief executive. Running a college is in many ways more challenging than ever. Yet despite these challenges, there are also considerable opportunities for further education to take the lead of other sectors and think about how it attracts and retains talent.

The marketisation of further education has meant that leaders not only need to be teaching and learning specialists but they also need a broad range of entrepreneurial and commercial skills. This has, in some ways, posed a tension between the civic and social purpose of further education to provide education and opportunity and the contrasting imperative towards securing financial autonomy.


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Leadership challenges in FE colleges

Reductions in government funding will likely remain a considerable challenge for any leader in the sector – as the Social Market Foundation found that eight out of 10 leaders refer to funding/ budget constraints as the main difficulty in working within FE.

Naturally, the challenges faced by further education leaders have been given much thought both by those within our sector and policymakers across Whitehall. The work of the Education and Training Foundation and the Further Education Trust for Leadership has been critical in expanding knowledge about what good leadership looks like in FE. But there is certainly no one-size-fits-all model. Some of the headline challenges are similar across the board: developing a skilled and motivated workforce, maintaining robust procedures and policies, developing strong employer relationships. But there will be nuances and subtleties in leadership depending on a range of internal, geographic and exogenous factors.

We certainly need to consider how the current crop of existing further education leaders can be best supported to lead, but there is an equally pertinent question around how the sector can support aspiring principals from within their ranks. It is not uncommon to hear that the challenges that come with the job deter even the most capable and well-suited individuals from putting their hat in the ring.

As a group of colleges, the Collab Group recognises that this challenge will remain an urgent and important one. We have therefore initiated a new development programme for aspiring principals within our member colleges. Through this, we hope to secure the leadership capability of our colleges into this decade and beyond. 

Considering the unique contexts that further education colleges operate in, we have designed the programme to cover both general and specific elements that any leader of a college may encounter. We have done so by harnessing the insights of leaders with varied backgrounds representing colleges in different local contexts.  This includes leveraging the ideas of those leaders who have emerged from teaching roles to those from industry who have broad experience in the commercial world. In respect to geography, we have been keen to differentiate between the challenges of managing a college within urban, rural or semi-rural settings.  

The nature of the programme will be to give participants the practical as well as theoretical insights to help them navigate the challenges and opportunities that are emerging in further education. The programme will involve participants working collaboratively on a shared business problem and gaining an enhanced understanding of the regulatory and oversight rules that govern the management of colleges.

We hope that, in time, the programme will act as a catalyst to ensure that the next generation of further education talent can secure the success of colleges well into the future. The challenges facing further education colleges are considerable, but by harnessing the knowledge and skills of experienced FE leaders, and encouraging aspiring leaders to set out a bold and compelling vision for the future of FE, there is reason to believe that the sector will thrive and continue to play a key role in the lives of millions of people across the UK.    

Shelagh Legrave is chief executive of Chichester College Group and chair of the Collab Group of colleges

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