'Now is the time to plan FE leadership of the future'

In these troubling times, we must find the space to think and talk about effective leadership, writes Ruth Silver

Ruth Silver

Coronavirus: Now is the time to plan for FE leadership of the future, writes Dame Ruth SIlver

The crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is prompting all of us to ask questions of ourselves, to re-evaluate the past and to think hard about the future. The Further Education Trust for Leadership is no exception.

Most people in the sector will know that when FETL launched nearly seven years ago it was to be what Netflix describes as a “limited series”. Our aim was to create spaces in the further education sector for leadership of thinking – mostly by the sector itself. We wanted to support colleagues in developing the kind of independent, self-confident and self-scrutinising sector that would no longer need an organisation such as FETL.

FETL always planned to close its activities in July of this year. However, the advent of Covid-19 has prompted us to rethink our plans. Following considerations with our working partners, the FETL board of trustees this week agreed that FETL would now continue its activity until summer 2021.


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This is a significant decision, and it is not one we have taken lightly. I want briefly to make clear our reasons.

First, we want to be sure that we honour the near-ready work of the present. The current crisis means that we are simply not in a position to conclude our current activities as we would wish and as we think they merit. It would not be fair on our partners and collaborators to continue as planned with the reports, think pieces and lectures we had scheduled for the next few months. We need the time and the space to do justice to these final works and this is simply not possible in the current circumstances.

Coronavirus: What does the future hold for FE?

Second, we are sensitive that in these turbulent weeks and months, further education will face major change and disruption that will demand careful questioning and intelligent debate, which we want to encourage and to which we want to contribute. We need to utilise the space and freedom provided by FETL to reflect thoughtfully about how to respond to the immediate challenges that the sector faces and to anticipate those that will surely follow.

Third, FETL was set up to provide what we term "scripts for the future" of FE, and the future, to be frank, is not what it used to be. FETL was set up to foster "generativity" in the sector, a term coined by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson to denote "a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation". Our ambition was to prepare the FE world for a time when we would not be part of it – a sector that could write its own script for the future.

Suddenly, what the future holds is much less clear and the task of leading thinking in ways fruitful for learners and the colleagues who will continue to work in the sector is much more complex. The need to engage fully with the challenges of the present and, just as critically, to think beyond them could not be more evident or more urgent.

For FETL to depart the field at this critical time, especially with our unique freedoms, when so much is uncertain and so much is to be decided in what is likely to be a far-reaching new social settlement, feels not only unfortunate, but also, in a very palpable way, irresponsible.

We cannot wait for the future to come to us. Now is the time to plan for what comes next. This belief is, in essence, what defines FETL. Setting up the future – and thus securing a meaningful legacy for the leadership of thinking – means ensuring that the thought-filled voice of the sector continues to be heard.

In these difficult and troubling times, we need both space in which to think and a willingness to talk across sectors, with new and old partners. FETL has a crucial enabling role to play and we want to play it to the full. We look forward to supporting this important work with you and by you in the year ahead.

Dame Ruth Silver is president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership

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