Something went dreadfully wrong with FE management immediately after colleges were taken out of local authority control in 1993. The last two years have seen initiatives designed to repair the damage. College management became, at its worst, brutal and dictatorial. The idea of consensus, of taking your staff along with you, came to be regarded, as Martin Jenkins, then principal of Halton College, used to say, as "a terribly 1970s idea". College chiefs became increasingly unaccountable, ignoring staff entirely.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, blames incorporation itself, combined with a poor understanding of the fashionable management doctrines of the Eighties. "Perfectly decent college principals were turned into monsters, going about with copies of management guru Tom Peters in their briefcases, and what it said to them was: 'You are God'."
But many principals think the problem was the legacy of local authority control. "Traditional structures of management were hierarchical," says John Mowbray, general secretary of the Association of College Management. "Many of these structures were shown after incorporation to have feet of clay."
Either way, the financial squeeze did not help. "In the early years of incorporation, the emphasis was on resources, on working within financial constraints," says Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges. Whatever the reason, the situation demanded radically different management styles to restore the morale of staff at all levels. "If you have ivory- tower management, which may be visionary but its vision is not shared, it will not be successful," says Mr Mowbray. "If you have a vision and a plan, it is no use if the parties to it do not own it. You won't succeed just by being charismaticI those colleges that are successful have now moved on to ownership and leadership."
The Association of Colleges now advises colleges to recognise Natfhe as a union for negotiating purposes. That's a pretty dramatic switch of attitude. Ms Dutton is not exaggerating when she talks of "a new dawn in industrial relations". She explains it like this: "In the last two years since the new government came in there has been a greater investment in training and development. Discussions with trade unions are a natural follow-on from the new environment."
Paul Mackney puts it more brutally: "We are seeing less macho management and more reflection. People have pulled themselves up sharp after the gung-ho ride of the early years. There are enough damaged former staff around to remind us of the danger of the old approach."
The Further Education National Training Organisation (Fento) is developing standards for teachers and managers. Its chief executive, Geoff Terry, says: "We are stressing the adoption of reflective practises. People need to reflect on where they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are." The process will be given a boost this month when the Department for Education and Employment launches a consultation paper, Qualifications for Teachers and Principals in Further Education.
The final draft will be available in March, but the general thrust is already clear. Management, Fento will say, needs to develop strategic practice: to analyse, plan, develop and implement a shared vision. The vision needs to be communicated and discussed, and staff need to be inspired, not just told.
The draft will stress the need to develop and sustain learning and the learning environment, and to develop strategic practice, including the management of strategic resources. Crucially, management needs to lead teams and individuals. This requires reflection and self-analysis - managers have to learn to manage and develop themselves, says Geoff Terry. Then it requires looking outwards, at the staff and at the students. Managers need to develop team and individual performance. This means promoting the organisation's values and vision to staff and students; advising, supporting, and assessing the effectiveness of teams and individuals; and contributing to staff development and training.
Managers also need to build productive working relationships, according to Fento. This involves securing the trust and support of colleagues, students and external contacts, and dealing professionally with differences between staff.
These are the sorts of strategies that have enabled some of the colleges with the worst problems, such as Halton College, Cheshire, and Stoke-on-Trent College, to pull themselves up again. But elsewhere, old attitudes persist. Paul Mackney refuses to name names, but says: "In those places, our members are asking why they are being left behind the rest of the country." He admits that Natfhe, too, has changed. In the old days it did not spend much time worrying about standards of management. Today, "we recognise the need for good management, having seen what it is like to be very badly managed by bosses who have been marinaded in their own testosterone."
Symptomatic of the change is the recognition that one cannot measure everything. Figures on student retention, examination success and the rest are fine, but one also needs a way of assessing what John Mowbray calls the softer management skills. You cannot assess these by looking at reports from the next person up the line. Self assessment as practised at Blackpool and Fylde College (see next page) is one way of assessing these, but there are others, such as peer assessment, in which the manager is assessed by those whom he or she manages. You need new management structures too. "They have to be changed from hierarchical to flattened," says John Mowbray.
There are still problems. The financial squeeze has not gone away. In Northern Ireland, which is only two years into incorporation, principals are confidently predicting they will avoid the problems seen in England and Wales, mainly because they do not have the same financial problems and expect to avoid redundancies.
But if better management does not solve everything, nothing at all will be solved without it. FE's future will be created by managers who think about what they do and are prepared to criticise themselves, not just their staff; by managers who know they need to have a shared vision, rather than just telling their staff what the vision is.
* CASE STUDY: Blackpool and The Fylde College
Since January 1997, 30 of Blackpool and The Fylde College's 100 or so managers have been annually assessed on how well they "live the management charter" - and they are partly responsible for assessing themselves.
There are five areas in which they are measured:
* putting the customers first
* proper handling of resources
* their general professionalism and competence
* co-operation with colleagues
* their respect for staff and whether they encourage others (rather disconcertingly, one of the aspects of their work they have to assess under this heading is whether they say "Thank you" often enough).
There are three assessments for each manager: the one the manager writes, one written by the line manager, and one written by the people he or she manages. Each manager invites a sample of those in his or her team to complete the same assessment form, but other staff or managers do not see these assessments.
"The real benefit is that we don't focus entirely on the numbers side - targets, recruitment, examinations and so on," says Blackpool's principal, Reg Chapman. "It gets to the softer side of management." But self-assessment is only one part of the evidence. "If they say they manage resources well, we may have evidence to set against that. Some managers underestimate themselves."
The charter's strength , says Mr Chapman, is that it was created by those who use it. It's a means of "getting back to the basics of what we are here for, and getting a more collaborative style".
It also signals a new and better relationship with staff and their unions, three years after the end of the bitter dispute with lecturers over national contracts, says Mr Chapman. Pat Roach, chair of the college branch of the lecturers' union, Natfhe, agrees. "I work as a positive and proactive member of staff, but also a positive and proactive trade unionist," she says. She is a curriculum leader in counselling: "There's not much difference between counselling and being the union representative. Both are about beliefs, and understanding the other person. Both are about safety: counsellors have codes of ethics, union reps have union rules."
Self-assessment helps, she says, because it takes the focus away from the sometimes misleading numbers game. "If a person leaves a course and gets a job, it looks like a failure on a numerical basis but it may in fact be a success. I think people skills are making a comeback here, but the funding still makes it very difficult. Funding affects the way you relate to people."
She senses a new and less confrontational relationship with management. "As soon as your words get softer, your attitudes get softer. The dark days are gone here, but there are some colleges which are still in the dark days."
It is ironic that Blackpool and The Fylde should be in the vanguard of the new management, because this was the college that took Natfhe to court in March 1994 and stopped the union from holding a national strike ballot. The point at issue was that the college demanded from Natfhe a list of all those to be balloted.
Michael McAllister retired as principal three years ago and Mr Chapman replaced him, bringing, says Ms Roach, a very different attitude. "The old attitude was that everything would be good once we all became business minded," she says. The new attitude echoes the law: the latest Employment Act stops employers from making the sort of demand that Mr McAllister tried to enforce, because it could lead to victimisation by employers. Mr Chapman told Ms Roach: "You and I disagree, but if we didn't we wouldn't be doing our jobs."
The college's 1994 court action did great damage at the time, says Paul Mackney of Natfhe. The immediate effect was to make lecturers feel utterly powerless - they were ignored in their colleges, and legally barred from taking action to press their views. "It probably led to months and years of guerrilla warfare and to the chaos we have now. Perhaps without it we could have brought employers to a compromise solution." He welcomes the new attitude, but thinks it was an unnecessarily long time coming.
This year, a new version of the charter and self-assessment will be extended to a wider group - and perhaps to all staff.
* WHAT GOOD MANAGERS MUST DO
Put the customers first
Show respect and encourage junior staff
Look after resources properly
Manage in a professional and competent manner
Co-operate with colleagues
Taken from Blackpool and The Fylde College's Management Charter