‘A multi-faceted critique of FE leadership’

A new collection of essays, The Principal, is a reminder of the power of and need for satire

Lynne Sedgmore

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The rise of superb examples of comedic satire, frequently crossing into lampooning, can assist us in coping with our inevitable fear of crazy, out-of-control, dishonest, dissembling, incompetent, self-serving and inconsistent leaders. Ridiculing behaviours or beliefs we accept or normalise at our peril is what satire, at its best, is designed for.

The power of Alec Baldwin’s hilarious and terrifying sketches of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live alongside a parody of Vladimir Putin and the “grim reaper” Steve Bannon, have already become legendary satirical classics. Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, insulting the press or riding on a travelling lectern through the streets of New York is both funny and scary. Bill Maher uses scathing humour to expose, insult and challenge the craziest aspects of Trumpdom.

In Newzoids, the successor to Spitting Image, the puppets bring satire to a new generation in the UK. These include Ed Miliband’s incompetent, constantly falling over character, Kim Jong-un’s sudden and spontaneous appearances offering unsolicited and ludicrous leadership advice, a parade of obnoxious celebrities and the ever-exaggerated royal family.

All depictions are far too close for comfort, making us squirm in recognition and distaste while simultaneously secretly chuckling or laughing out loud in recognition and affection. But satire can also have dark, chilling undertones – think Armando Iannuci’s recent film The Death of Stalin.

The extremism of the humour in all of the above is proportionate to the depth, and breath, of the bizarreness, damage and peculiarities of those satirised. Satire is intended, in dangerous times, to be a call to action, investigation or resistance – to change things for the better and to raise consciousness of the unacceptable. In less extreme contexts, satire is introduced to instigate debate, transparency and awareness of what is misaligned or needs attention and improvement.

I am not suggesting for a moment that FE leaders are as dysfunctional as the above mentioned. But the sector, like any public service, is funded and shaped by decisions made by politicians where “high politics is a dangerous affair” within the realities of austerity economics, apprenticeship reform and Brexit.

'Brave and stimulating'

The quote above is taken from The Principal: power and professionalism in FE, a brave and stimulating collection of essays by practitioners and academics drawing on sophisticated analysis of the renowned treatise by Machiavelli.

The book will be launched at a conference at the University of Huddersfield on Saturday. It uses irony and satire to clever affect and may, at times, require an open, inquiring, reflective, honest and tolerant mind from any reader in a leadership position.

It raises difficult but pertinent questions concerning the whole system, as well as challenging current policy, motivation, action and self-justification – alongside the use and abuse of power. In many ways, the book isn’t really about principals at all: it’s about a quest for consensual positive organisational dynamics.

Examples throughout the book illustrate that FE leaders need to “be both fox and lion” and acknowledges that, at their best, most are caring, ethical, hard-working leaders responding to impossible complexity and constantly changing parameters. Several chapters outline the ways leaders are experiencing the toughest of times and it is the principals who remain focused on students and learning who co-create excellence with their staff and learners.

The Principal tracks the rise of FE managerialism from incorporation, the direct linking of funding to student success and the innumerable policy changes, imperatives and conflicting demands that pull endlessly on a leader’s time, energy and attention.

The path to leadership can be one of conscious unscrupulous acts or unintended immorality, as described by Machiavelli, or one of authentic ethical endeavour and moral courage. Contributors place students, curriculum and practitioners at the core purpose of FE within the “inherent wickedity of all the challenges” faced in every college.

The gift of The Principal is a multi-faceted and proportionate critique and reflection of the nuances of FE leadership, alongside professionals making a public stand to say enough is enough when it comes to the disempowerment of senior leadership. They call for new ways of working and stronger connections between leaders and practitioners. The proposal to build “principalities of people” with powerful voices is an exciting one.

If read widely and taken seriously, this book could revolutionise FE leadership discourse, professionalism and practice by challenging the pragmatism and empty mantra of “doing the right thing” while creating significant damage to staff and services. It is thoughtful, provocative, perceptive and challenging – but never cruel, insulting or inappropriate. The illustrations from students are an added attraction, giving the book an aesthetic appeal.

Both The Principal and its predecessor – Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which draws on Cinderella in a similar fashion – expand and enhance a tradition of satire within FE. They should be welcomed and responded to with respect, energy and a new level of reflection, practice and debate.

Drawing again on Philip Roth’s definition that “satire is moral outrage transformed into a comic art”, I hope FE leaders will rise to the occasion and respond with the moral clarity, strength and courage to see their own faces – for better and worse – in the pages of The Principal. And then use its wisdom to co-create and lead an even more powerful, responsive and well-led FE system for all learners.

Lynne Sedgmore is former executive director of the 157 Group and chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership

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