Leadership: How do we know what will work post-Covid?

The Covid crisis has given the FE sector valuable lessons in leadership, say David Hughes and Stephen Crookbain

David Hughes and Stephen Crookbain

FE college leadership: How do we know what will work post-Covid?

The Covid-19 pandemic has helped us to see what it means to be a college leader. Across the whole of the public services, we’ve talked for years about "systems thinking and leadership", and often in the abstract. This past year has shown what it really means. To support the country during this time of immense challenge, public servants responded, adapted and worked together to achieve some exceptional things.

To mark this – and the work of all public leaders – the National Leadership Centre has launched the Public Leaders Report 2021 on NationalLeadership.gov.uk. The report illustrates what worked and how during the pandemic, and the lessons we learned from both successes and challenges. It celebrates some of the people and organisations on whom we all depended. Colleges have been vital anchor institutions for people and communities across the nation and have shown how collaboration with other public sector institutions can deliver better. The report provides us with lessons about what we must all do now, together, to support leaders and future leaders in making 2020 achievements and learnings an enduring feature of post-Covid life.

Covid and the future of FE college leadership

Together, the two of us are partners in helping public sector and public good leaders learn from one another and ultimately work closer together. The National Leadership Centre’s (NLC) mission is to help the country’s most senior public service leaders develop the skills, knowledge and networks required to address society’s most complex challenges. To do this, the NLC unites a network of college principals, local authority and NHS CEOs, civil servants, vice-chancellors and more.


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Understanding what works, how it works, and sharing this for greater impact has never been more important. The pressures of Covid have been unique. Universal credit claims surged in unprecedented numbers – just under a million in the fortnight after the first lockdown. Teaching and learning across all age groups moved entirely online within days and keeping students supported and engaged became an enormous challenge. Through great adversity, leaders have worked together and made things happen in ways that nobody would have thought possible in February 2020.

Covid has not been the only challenge facing colleges and public services, of course. Work to keep people safe, to protect the environment, to narrow inequality gaps in education and health, have continued. But the pandemic has placed an additional strain on people and organisations, complicating the strategic and operational landscape for all public services.

Insights and lessons

The Public Leaders Report 2021 captures what it was like to lead during such a tough year. The stories, including candid insights, reflections and lessons on leading through the pandemic, from 20 chief executives across the country are compelling. They put faces, places and context to abstract terms like "collaboration" and "innovation", and explain what we might retain for the future.

The report highlights the impact and success of the FE Food Bank Friday campaign that brought together 37 colleges and their communities to raise important funds and food for people in need. As Dr Sam Parrett, group principal and chief executive of London South East Colleges – and a delegate on the NLC’s leadership programme – has written, it has brought the college sector together in a unique way during a very challenging time to deliver real social value.

Colleges are resilient anchor institutions, real community resources that others can learn from, and there are huge learnings and inspiration to be taken from what works in other places, too. The partnership models that are featured from Newcastle and Leicestershire are equally inspiring, and the report shows different approaches to building relationships around joint community outcomes. The resourcefulness of the London Ambulance Service to deal with the unrelenting demand during waves of Covid has leadership lessons that apply beyond blue-light cooperation.

In seven "Portraits of Public Service Leaders", NLC's interviews with CEOs capture insights that are applicable beyond their own organisations and sectors: business continuity, prioritisation, looking after your own physical and mental health and that of your teams, keeping perspective, focusing on the positive. It is a reminder that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Working together to support the public sector

Relationships built in crisis will last. Both the Association of Colleges and the NLC will do all they can to help leaders to keep these links strong as we recover and rebuild. We will also help leaders to "pay it forward", supporting the next generation to build strong and deep networks, without the prompt of a pandemic.

It will be important to ensure a cross-public service approach. Between us, we’ll share our research on what works to help design cutting-edge leadership programmes and network events. And the NLC is extending its offer and creating new connections between CEOs across the country to help extend the links that have proved so vital over the past year.

In many ways, the work featured in this report has only just begun.

You can view the Public Leaders Report 2021 in full at NationalLeadership.gov.uk

David Hughes is chief executive of the Associaton of Colleges, and Stephen Crookbain is director of the National Leadership Centre

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