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Hold tight!

Lynne Sedgmore explains how her college has found a way to keep calm in turbulent waters

We're shooting the rapids - every single day

Management gurus and organisational theories abound. The management experience has been likened to an art form: "surfing at the edge", "herding cats", "boiling frogs" or "teaching elephants to dance".

For me, the most apt metaphor for the sharp end of FE was coined by Peter Vaill* who says the job of running a college is like navigating "permanent whitewater". That description conveys how it feels in organisations when the ground itself keeps moving around and the context within which people work is destabilising to the point where it cannot be known what will come next. Timescales for planning and forecasting become ever shorter, and survival depends on finding new and agile ways of responding. Does this sound familiar?

One way forward is not just more and more action. Instead, we need to think differently about how we perform our roles so that we can radically affect our colleges. Learning to cope within them is not good enough.

One important task for senior management is to support, empower and pass on the skills to all college managers to be able to cope with and transform themselves and their work context, as well as support and enable their staff to do the same.

There is not space here to go into detail, but part of what is demanded today from managers must include building trust, high transparency and accountability, consistent and fair leadership, effective teamwork, intense engagement with people, more expression of individuality and involvement of the whole person alongside a new mix of intellectual and action orientation.

Good working relationships depend on a shared commitment to ideas, values, goals, actions, management processes and the development of a healthy working community. They draw on effective interpersonal skills and the desire of staff to find meaning and fulfilment through their work, while achieving the goals and standards of their organisation.

At Guildford, we drew up a management charter to raise morale and encourage participative and empowering management practices. The charter lays out what I expect of the managersand what they can expect of me. It places emphasis on living our values and contributing to the formation of a supportive, enthusiastic, respectful, fair and high-performance college culture. It places students and learning at the heart of everything we do and raises such features as passion, creativity, genuine inquiry, boldness, no blame, risk-taking, high-energy and personal learning alongside accountability, effective communication, targets and professional standards.

I have no illusions that such a charter is a substitute for the much-needed increase in pay for staff, nor for fair and reasonable contractual agreements. As an eternal optimist, my hope is that it may provide an inspirational tool in a sector where staff experience such low morale and feel increasingly that their values and reasons for entering teaching are being eroded. It may also enable staff to see that managers can have positive aspirations for their college, students, learning and staff and wish to behave in fair and constructive ways.

In my view, all these facets are important to create a healthy and effective college with staff and managers working together for the service and good of everyone.

Many managers at Guildford have engaged with the charter and found it empowering. For others, it is a significant challenge requiring change in how they behave. Some continue in their cynicism. Only time will tell what genuine impact it will have.

My motivation for writing is that the charter was considered a strength when we were inspected in February. In fact, the inspectors encouraged us to share it with others .

Lynne Sedgmore is principal of Guildford College. The charter is available from Persephone Whiffen on 01483 448501.*Peter Vaill is author of 'Managing as a Performing Art' (Jossey Bass Wiley, pound;18.99)

My Guru We would like to use this article to launch an occasional series called My Guru. Write, fax or e-mail details of a proposed article (maximum 800 words) about a thinker or writer who has influenced your views and practice of education.

Send it to Ian Nash at 'College Manager', 'The TES', Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Fax: 020 7782 3205. E-mail:

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