College incorporation: 'An experiment that has failed'

There's little wonder that changes to FE over the last decade have affected leadership quality, says Stuart Rimmer

College incorporation: 'An experiment that has failed'

Last month, the Association of College's David Hughes opened up a much needed polemic on the quality of college principals in our sector. He provided a detailed account of the potential impact of a decade of austerity on college leadership and our expectations of leaders. As 250 colleges separately wrestle with even the definition of 'college principal' (with 250 different deviations), I’d like to further this debate by proposing a series of other considerations that may help answer or at least further unpack his key questions. 

It is easily argued that college leaders currently operate within outdated and confused models of agency intervention and measurement, which increasingly has led to leadership positions being far more fragile. Accountability to community is often disregarded. Often, not always, these interventions force upon leaders short-termist behaviours - to provide a rapid financial turnaround, say, or quick increases to qualification achievement rates - without thorough investigation or cognisance to the longer-term requirements of the college and its communities. Firefighting rarely leads to sustainable solutions for a college and operating in these environments fail to score on even the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy. Deep and well-planned quality and recovery or post-merger integration so that students and staff get a fair and improving deal does takes time and huge commitments from leadership. There has been so much flux over the last decade in FE that this must impact leadership quality.


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Opposing incentives 

To this end, it is also worth reflecting that the post incorporation college governance models have rapidly become outdated.  Structures forced upon college leadership teams is a cycle of traditional committee intervention, challenge and support. In the investigation into the quality of national leadership it must be now time to consider alternative governance models taking the best from industry moving to executive board models, where expertise and remuneration matches the accountabilities for modern colleges.

Colleges, and therefore college principals, are operating in a sector where financial measures and regulators are now almost entirely diametrically opposed to regulators and operations of quality.  There are incentives to protect cash, reduced costs annually in line with inflation, and focus on debt repayment as opposed to investing in the student experience, rewarding staff and creating new and modern ways to develop curricular.  The balance is complex and at times arguably impossible in our broken funding system.

Can colleges be outstanding financially and be judged to be outstanding by Ofsted? And furthermore can the result point to a single leader? 'No' is clearly the answer. The outcome might more likely lay in a postcode lottery of whether the college you lead has long-term debt, its geography, condition of building stock, the mix of provision to meet local need, the luck of the local industry landscape, or maturation of culture and performance for example disruption through merger or restructuring.  College principals can affect but rarely control all these factors. 

Reputations are lost, and yet rarely celebrated

With hire and fire culture, higher levels of public scrutiny and occasionally accompanied by career-ending front-page news, who will take up the mantle of leading colleges where provision is less positive or finances are difficult? Coastal and more specifically socially-deprived coastal-rural communities, or indeed some metropolitan areas, where mix of provision might be mathematically improbable for provision to achieve national rates, or impossible to easily attract the best talent, become fertile grounds for college leaders where reputations are often lost and yet rarely celebrated.  It is in this territory where we need our best leaders to go. 

At this time in the FE sector development, it is also worth consideration, or in my view the final acceptance, that incorporation has been an experiment that has failed. There are too many old-thinking college principals holding to the glory days of freedom from LEA control, higher pay and promises of autonomy that have never truly materialised.  Incorporation has failed to protect the security of colleges, of staff and students. It has failed to protect continued investment, it has failed to protect high standards, it has failed to protect support from those in high government since 1992. 

The operation of colleges within markets, or quasi-markets, as Professor Ewart Keep would tell us, has led to college principals operating within environments of decreasing resources and more aggressive competitive behaviours, where survival of the fittest deeply and negatively effects college leadership in communities both locally, regionally and nationally. If post incorporation principals (of which I am one) come armed with the Milton Freidman handbook of economics, an MBA and a narrative from insolvency specialists or even governing bodies that growth or die is the order of the day, as a sector we should not expect the Nolan principles to still be front and centre in the Darwinian further educational jungle. Maybe it’s time we could stop blaming the players and start to change the game. A National Education Service might be the door currently ajar to solve these ills.

As a sector, we must also rapidly find a way to stop damaging ourselves as principals and senior leaders.  We need to revise and set out a clear charter of leadership standards and behaviours and be bold enough where we see it to call out out-moded behaviours, expenses scandals, nepotistic contract awarding, or predatory behaviours at local and regional levels.  This cannot continue to go unchallenged.

The sector should and could do more to protect those in post from damaging and occasionally unnecessary career-ending experiences.  My own academic research into leadership stress with the University of Suffolk points easily to the physical and emotional impacts that will cause an increasing number of principals to step away from the sector.  Increasing college leader remuneration is not the solution.

 College leadership now is at a critical stage where it must be seen as both a structural and long-term problem to be explored and collectively resolved with long term solutions. It is correct that as leaders in a sector we challenge our own thinking and concern ourselves deeply with the quality of sector leadership. It is a much needed and urgent dialectic that in my view will require government sector bodies, college staff, and agencies to come together to fully understand and provide collective long term solutions.

 Stuart Rimmer is the principal of East Coast College.

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