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Plant seeds to grow leaders at all levels

'What can be more important than organisations coming together to support our lecturers, leaders, managers and support staff?'

Lynne Sedgmore, chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership

The Concord Group strives to support the success of all students through organisations that are consistently well-led and which provide a top-value service from professional, qualified and valued staff.

The learning and skills sector employs more than 600,000 staff and serves over 6 million learners aged 14 to beyond retirement.

What, therefore, can be more important than national organisations coming together in a new collaboration to support our lecturers, leaders, managers and support staff?

A particular quest of mine has been to understand how leaders and managers can work more effectively and harmoniously with lecturers and support staff, working together in the interest of students. Consistently, public reviews and reports, and the work of the inspectors in Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate indicate a strong correlation between effective, learner-centred leaders who focus on the educational and vocational achievement of their students and the quality of learning. It is easy for organisations to say they are "learner-centred" but such environments cannot be created overnight. Nor can they be led by individuals alone with heroic management styles.

So what do we mean when we say a college is "well-led"? Research by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership shows that leadership in this sector is less about the work of a few talented individuals and more about successful organisation of a complex network of leadership practices. It involves staff from across the organisation. By adopting a learner-centred approach and encouraging a culture that helps leadership to grow at all levels, such leaders can unite the organisation around a strong vision focusing on the staff and students.

A significant part of the CEL's work is about working with senior managers - encouraging them to share good practice and stimulating the development of middle and junior managers. This encourages the next generation of leaders and managers to grow in confidence and to develop new, more creative ways of working. It is, after all, the professionals in daily contact with students who know best how to create the best service.

Leaders work in an environment of huge uncertainty and change. The CEL's recent research paper, "Leadership as Mundane Work", suggests that a deeper understanding of the way leadership is shared helps us to see it as a set of ordinary or "mundane" practices. This does not mean leadership is dull or boring, but it helps everyone to understand that the daily reality of "doing" leadership has little to do with the "superhero" qualities too often practised by modern-day leaders. The CEL is looking at how leaders can best influence people from the middle ground, rather than from the top.

There is much to celebrate in our sector, with many examples of good leadership, student success and outstanding professionalism. Our research reveals a high level of commitment and good practice. Most staff are highly committed and active in their personal and professional development.

Leadership and professional development for the 21st century must also involve awareness and skill in managing diverse cultures. With the increasing emphasis on quality, agencies have a vital role in working more effectively together to support sector staff and students. It is time also for our leaders to present a confident and positive voice to funders and policy-makers which reflects what we give to learners and the significant contribution we make to the social and economic agenda of the UK.

Lynne Sedgmore is chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership

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