Mental health: 'Difficult' to be a leader right now

There needs to be more 'openness' about how hard it is to be a college leader during Covid, says former principal

Kate Parker

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Leaders in further education need to be more open about being fallible, a charity chair and former college principal has said.

Speaking exclusively to Tes, chair of the Careers Colleges Trust Ruth Gilbert said it was difficult to be a senior leader in further education at the moment.

She said: “We all need to be kind and support each other. Trying to be a senior leader in the sector when there's so much change is really difficult right now. I'd like to see more collaboration, more discussion, more openness about how hard it is actually, having seen some of the tragedies in people's health. It’s really, really important that people are more open about being fallible.”


News: Almost half of leaders 'experience distress regularly'

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Ms Gilbert’s comments come days after a Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) report, written by East Coast College principal Stuart Rimmer, revealed that 45 per cent of college leaders experienced “distress” three to five times a week.

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In anonymised comments, leaders spoke of a “brutal workload” as well as the impact that distress has on sleep, health issues and attitudes towards work. The common causes of distress were constant changing of policy and regulation, leading through uncertainty and the threat of sanction, as well as college finances where outcomes are out of direct control, and frequent crisis management.

This year has already heralded major change for the FE sector with the publication of the Skills for Jobs White Paper, which proposed putting employers at the heart of post-16 skills, reform of advanced higher and technical skills and changes to accountability, governance and intervention. 

Ms Gilbert, who was previously principal of Southwark College and vice-principal at Oaklands and West Herts College, said leaders should have courage to try new things, without the fear of being labelled “a rebel”.

She said: “There still needs to be a willingness to try new things, and not to be seen as a rebel, and you have to have enough courage in your convictions to give it a go. But actually do it in an open way, bring the staff with you by saying, 'We're going to try something, and it may not work.' I suppose that's what's going to get us through this period of change.” 

In his FETL report, Mr Rimmer set out a series of recommendations for leaders, for college corporations and for the sector. 

He said: “Distress is a very real and dangerous consideration within the FE sector and affects all roles. From this research, it is proven that distress is currently impacting principals. There is insufficient consideration given to distress by individuals adopting self-care, the colleges as institutions ensuring that principals operate under a duty of care, from a legal and moral perspective, and the sector, through policy, is creating the conditions that allow, and, in many cases, promote higher distress for leaders.” 

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a schools and colleges content producer.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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