"How come some college leaders are doing an outstanding job? And how many outstanding leaders can any sector expect to have?"
These are the questions that the Association of College's chief executive, David Hughes, said he is asked most frequently by new ministers and new officials in an article for Tes.
They are, of course, the wrong questions. We appear to be locked in a cultural bubble that views people who exercise the will (often ruthlessly and without principles) to “get things done” as enacting the highest form of leadership. It is a reductive and ethically hollow model.
Another problem with the new ministers and new officials’ assumptions is that leadership is confined to the senior staff in college. While senior leadership requires courage, it is not more courageous than teachers sticking to practices that are underpinned by values – despite a range of structures and culturally inappropriate policy edicts.
Tes FE Podcast: The FE leadership challenge
The questions originate from a command and control relationship that has been consolidated between central government and local colleges since incorporation. Its chief lever is funding – which explains why this remains ever-changing and annualised and why it is extraordinarily complicated (so complicated that employers are put off getting involved with apprenticeships because of it).
Ministers are asking questions like this because they have developed an addiction to policy intervention in further education, an addiction to bending further education to their will and, above all, an addiction to instrumentalising it as a key part of addressing the nation’s productivity gap.
When colleges "fail to deliver" what government requires, despite a funding environment that any business would find trying and an inability to plan ahead that most businesses would find impossible, to turn that into a question about a shortfall in outstanding leaders is simply to multiply error.
This isn’t really about outstanding leadership at all.
Hughes comments: "It feels now that many leaders are wary of seeking support because of the fear of intervention resulting in them losing their livelihoods.”
In this kind of environment, it isn’t surprising that seeking support is perceived as weakness. This fits with the current hegemonic model of the über-leader. Of course the marketised set of relationships that colleges have been forced to operate under is an inherent part of the problem. The environment is designed to be a hostile one.
A broken set of circumstances
Colleges are civic local entities that play a fundamental and critical role in their areas. The leadership of complex organisations orientated towards addressing the needs of specific local contexts is a challenge. Arm’s length leadership from central London is even more difficult, if not impossible.
Ministers need to grasp that isolated colleges operating in a hostile competitive environment are less rather than more likely to be able to meet these challenges. The focus needs to shift away from superhuman individuals who, with Nietzschean "will" turn failure into success.
The final question posed by the article compounds the problem. Hughes asks: "Where do outstanding leaders come from? And how can we support more people to become outstanding leaders?"
This is an important question but we should not allow our sense of what leadership is and can be to be dictated by the current broken set of circumstances. This model derives from a view of further education as a purely instrumentalist venture and further education has never only been about skills, employability and productivity of the UK workforce.
In our view, the current model of leadership is judged primarily on finance and quality outcomes. Quality is always an important part of outcomes – but pedagogy has to play a critical role. Further education is not measured only by achievements; that teachers care must also be recognised; the staff/student relationship should be at the centre of leadership. College staff are our greatest resource, greatest asset and our greatest expenditure...so why are we not allowing them the freedom to solve the leadership problem?
Teachers should be empowered to lead.
A different understanding of leadership
We are a sector full of passionate people who care and we deserve ministers who care about community and pedagogy. Leadership on the part of teachers is about focusing attention on the needs of students and their educational experiences over and above the requirements of the current systems of accountability and funding.
Further education is about social justice and, unsurprisingly, the kind of outstanding leadership that ministers appear to be advocating sits uncomfortably with the values of social justice that underpin much of the work that goes on in colleges.
We carried out research recently into social justice and leadership in further education and found evidence that funding cuts have resulted in the closure of college provision in community settings across the country. For college leadership that sees colleges as engines for social justice, clearly, this is a defeat and a serious failure.
Hughes's assertion that colleges need a new relationship with government is bang on. But a new and different understanding of leadership is also needed. Leadership is a quality of action that all college staff need to be freed up to exercise. If there is good community engagement and quality based on pedagogy rather than just numbers then, if the funding model is fair, the funding will take care of itself.
Outstanding leadership can mean standing up and speaking out against bad policy, counter-productive funding structures, inappropriate centralised policy control and out-dated models of leadership.
Professor Vicky Duckworth is a professor of education at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, Dr Rob Smith is a reader in education at Birmingham City University, Mel Lenehan is the principal and CEO of Fircroft College of Adult Education, Birmingham, Palvinder Singh is a deputy-principal at Kidderminster College