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Caught in the middle of a mess

Colleges are suffering from 'change fatigue'. Ian Nash reports

Aspiring middle managers in colleges do not think highly of politicians and policy-makers shaping the future of further education.

Some say the unending call for radical change is a result of "weakness and political indecisiveness" rather than "strength and vision". Others say private industry has hijacked the FE debate, with the uncritical support of politicians.

While college managers may judge today's politicians as no worse than those of previous generations, as one new manager put it to FE Focus: "They are more hands on and it shows - for the worse."

The frustrations many new middle managers feel over being "put upon" or "done to", rather than consulted, emerged following a recent gathering of 70 aspiring managers at an event organised by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, The TES, Channel 4 and Policy Unplugged, an organisation that aims to get people talking about policy.

Young and aspiring managers "with something to say" were invited to the gathering in May, with follow-up exchanges on the web and viewpoints in FE Focus, which will continue for at least a year. What is emerging is a picture of the professionals feeling thwarted by constantly-changing demands from on high.

"We are so busy making the lousy changes politicians demand, we can't find the time to do what we know is best for the learner," said another manager.

"If parliament and policy-makers have any talent, the evidence is buried in time-wasting, money-squandering micro-management and audit trails."

Many felt that for too long, professionals - not only in education but also in health, social services and law and order - had been unfairly attacked, marginalised or at best ignored.

At the Channel 4 event, people and groups in an open forum were invited to start debates that would inspire and motivate others. Not surprisingly, initial concerns were all around obsessions of the day - pay parity, quality improvement and funding constraints.

But they soon progressed to more inspirational ideas - particularly around social inclusion themes such as how colleges can use their experience of teaching Travellers to reach out to other socially excluded groups.

There was also considerable constructive self-criticism, often around the failure to develop a better "learning culture" for college staff and managers. "We offer learning (as learning providers) but as organisations, we are poor learners ourselves," one group of managers concluded.

But concern over unhelpful micro-management by politicians and the Department for Education and Skills constantly surfaced.

The obsession with bean counting left colleges "over-managed and under-led". And the creation of these ever-growing demands - from a government that had once promised to slash red tape and bureaucracy - was to create yet more managers who now make up one in seven of all college staff.

Steve Moore, director of Policy Unplugged, said the constraints facing so many new managers was damaging. "Though there were some very articulate managers present (at the Channel 4 event) there was also a brittle confidence, with many resistant to what they perceived as occurring in the sector," he said.

Debates reflected committed staff working in an uneasy, disgruntled sector which, as one participant put it "was continually intervened with". Policy change seemed endless, resulting in "change fatigue".

Amid all the changes, the managers said they felt "caught in the middle".

They saw the need to develop talent, nurture support staff with potential and change the culture of the organisation. However, they did not always have the necessary support and resources.

Instead, resources were wasted, said Nigel Newton, lecturer and researcher at New College Swindon. "In everything from health care to the military, the culture of public sector work has been taken over by 'economicalism' - a mixture of performance-target addiction, funding-chasing fervour and an inability to view human aspirations in qualitative terms," he said.

"This cannot be the only administrative model that is both financially sound and socially progressive. Still, there seems no end to colleges spending inordinate resources checking course-funding details, bidding for contracts in virtual markets with other public operators and continually producing self-assessment, audit and inspection documentation.

"Meanwhile, there does not appear to be any political opinion in favour of halting this descent into madness - as many people see it."

Another participant, Medellis Ezzidio, a lecturer at Seevic College, Essex, pointed out what many saw as the "absurd" consequence of obsessions with bean-counting. There is a number-crunching exercise from the Learning and Skills Council to determine the success of an organisation's policy on race, he said. "It is based on point scoring - 35 being the maximum you can score based on the evidence available when assessing your policy.

"That evidence is not how you've implemented certain elements of the policy, or human experience, or outstanding initiatives and fabulous extracts and comments quoting brilliant customer satisfaction.

"No. The evidence required to determine your score is achieved by looking at the words and word structure. If your policy is a comprehensive well-written document you can score highly. If your policy isn't, you can redefine it accordingly and assess your wording again to achieve that golden score."

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