'FE needs visionary leaders, not bank managers'

As further education becomes ever more 'corporate', senior managers are increasingly out of touch, warns Roshan Doug

leadership FE colleges vocational management pay

A few months ago, as part of my post-doctorate research, I was observing the workings of senior managers in a number of FE colleges. The findings are interesting.

The jobs senior managers do are relatively straightforward and don't require the kind of high-level management training one might suspect. Essentially, they involve producing data, requesting data, inputting data, sharing data and then reproducing data in different formats.

They're all about the production of information in the form of spreadsheets, PowerPoints, graphs, diagrams, statistics, comparison tables, forecasts and budgets. This manufacturing of data is the bread and butter of most institutions – it seems it's their sole purpose.

Ironically, despite the sharing of so much information, senior management don’t share what is most important until it is, embarrassingly, leaked to the press. A number of lecturers recounted – in almost all colleges – incidents that they read about in their local media before they were sheepishly and hurriedly announced by the senior management team with grovelling apologies.


Read more: 'With FE the focus of policy, data and evidence matter'

Background: 'Respect between teachers and managers is key'

Opinion: Tes FE Podcast: The FE leadership challenge


Equality and meritocracy?

It's no surprise, therefore, that lecturers do not hold their senior management in high esteem. Lecturers do not believe they have respect for them or their profession. Neither do they believe that managers promote equality or meritocracy. Promotion is given on the basis of who the candidate is (who you know) not necessarily for what they can bring to the role. Qualifications, expertise and skills are of minor importance as, indeed, is the knowledge of education. What matters to them is your agreeability factor, your willingness to toe the party line.

Once you've become a manager, you must look the part. You are compelled to leave the union and associated organisations, whose membership might compromise your position. You have to scurry along looking busy. I've recorded lots of people in grey suits or high heels, lots of meetings, lots of paper shuffling, lots of references to Ofsted and other governing bodies, lots of bandying about of massaged  figures. In this respect, I've seen a multitudinous array of activities – lots of fretting and hurrying with a cacophony of sound and fury but, in Macbeth's words, signifying nothing.

It's true, managers strut about as actors, not as inspirational figures with a firm conviction. They appear as people with limited imagination or creative powers. The uninitiated, therefore, might be forgiven for thinking that senior managers are little more than glorified bureaucrats and administrators. In today's education, very rarely do managers say anything that goes against the grain. It's all about blending in, and the need to inspire the workforce is the last thing on their minds.

In this regard, the lecturers I interviewed (anonymously) stated that their senior managers are not leaders or visionaries and nor are they the standard bearers or educational gurus for their workforce. The principals I saw looked more like bank managers than educationalists.

With them earning over £100,000 and being entitled to a further thousands of pounds of bonuses each year, it doesn't seem fair that the teaching staff should make do with pay freezes or (at the very best) a mere 0.1 to 1 per cent pay rise (when inflation is running at 2 per cent). Coupled with the fact that such pay rises are linked to the number of sick days lecturers have had, you can understand why FE lecturers don't believe they are part of the same ship.

Colleges as corporations

It's partly because over the past few decades, FE colleges have had a change of identity. At one time, they were under the control of local authorities that were, effectively, their employers. Colleges were accountable to their local council and an interviewing panel would have to have a representative from the Commission for Racial Equality. The incorporation of colleges in the early 1990s saw the dissolution of the so-called "silver book" contract which, at one time, safeguarded lecturers’ relatively decent working conditions, including the cap on their weekly contact teaching hours (21), remission for taking on extra administrative duties and getting extra pay for extra hours.

But it also has something to do with the quality of senior managers. At one time, heads of departments were people with substantial experience of frontline teaching. They knew about pedagogical practices and the politics of the classroom. They were middle-aged educationalists wise and worldly. Principals were leaders confident to take on fly-by-night politicians and education policymakers who tried to dictate the nature and style of education. They had knowledge and confidence. Senior managers – particularly principals and governors – had an understanding of the role of education and the importance of safeguarding teachers' autonomous role. There existed a degree of unity in a college and it was the job of senior management to ensure that it was maintained.

Now, of course, FE colleges – not unlike all other educational institutions – are run as corporations. They operate on the principles of market economy, governed by the laws of supply and demand. The esoteric language in college documents and publicity material reinforce this, with words and phrases such as "mission statements", "clients", "personal coaches", "customer base", "targets" and "outcomes". In addition, thirtysomething year-old managers in all colleges look every inch like executive personnel who approach education like a business. When government authorities want change, senior management are ready to implement the recommendations the following day. What does that say about their respect for the teaching staff?

Advice for senior managers in FE

My research offers the following brief tips for senior managers in FE:

  • Don't put too much emphasis on outcomes/results to the detriment of proper humanist education. Colleges that do are least likely to get an "outstanding" grade. "Outstanding", by its very definition, means being a cut above the rest. But you can't be cut above the rest if you're doing more or less what other colleges are doing – if you're just imitating other providers. "Sharing good practice" is on par with copying. It's synonymous with a lack of originality. It shows a lack of imagination, your inability to come up with new ways of doing things. You are following, not leading or inspiring. Instead, be creative, be daring, be different. For instance, why not restore morale and reward the lecturers their six weeks' holidays in the summer – a feature they lost during the incorporation period. See what a difference that would make to them and their wellbeing.
  • Don't be reluctant to ask lecturers with better skills or more qualifications how to go about doing intricate tasks that may be above your ability level. Don't pretend you know it all when you don’t. Be open about your insecurities, your lack of knowledge. Use the people around you and their skills to help you create a vision of education, an ideal working model for you and your college.
  • Develop yourselves as visionaries, people who believe in the value of good education. Are you leader or a follower? If you’re the latter, don’t you think your staff and your students deserve better. In addition, ask yourself, would you send your own children to your college? If not, why not?
  • Stick up for the teaching staff. Remember, Ofsted is a mere advisory body. It's there to support and encourage you to be creative and forward-thinking. It's not looking for clones but unique education establishments where there is a good equilibrium, a healthy equitability in which people have respect for one another. Be considerate. For instance, do you have to have a lesson observation round every year? Do you really need to put so much anxiety and pressure on your staff?
  • Finally, allow contrarian viewpoints and dissension. Reward people for their expertise or skill and do not undermine them or keep them on the sidelines. Use them and make them feel valued. And, obvious as it may sound, share important information with your staff before it’s leaked out to the press – because that's something no apology can mend.
     

Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham

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