'Principals make mistakes. They need support, not blame'

Following Garry Phillips' death, we must stop blaming education leaders and offer more support, says Dame Ruth Silver

education leaders need support not blame

I, like so many others in the further education community, was saddened and distressed to hear of the death of Garry Phillips, the former principal of City College Plymouth, who died shortly before Christmas.

Mr Phillips was a bright, likeable and hard-working principal, justly proud of his rise from apprentice to become one of the youngest college leaders in the sector. The outpouring of tributes from within the sector demonstrates how well thought of he was. While he was principal at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London, the college’s Ofsted grade improved from "inadequate" to "good" over a four-year period. 

Mr Phillips became principal of City College Plymouth in July 2018. However, in November 2018, the FE commissioner published a report on his former college that was highly critical of its financial state and of his leadership, in particular. It led to controversy and, later that month, to Mr Phillips’ resignation.

End the nastiness

While I do not wish to express any view about the circumstances of Mr Phillips’ death or about his record as principal, issues about which I know too little, I do believe we need to have a conversation within the sector about how success and failure are judged, in what terms and by whom. We also need to undertake a wider reflection, as a society, about the nastiness and general lack of empathy that has come to characterise much of what passes for debate.

I have particular concerns to raise about the personal toll leadership in the further education sector can take, the support available to leaders when they are struggling, and the system of oversight and accountability under which they must operate.

Everybody knows that leadership can be a lonely business. Leaders have a responsibility to shoulder much of the pressure that comes from government reform and our overbearing, high-stakes system of accountability. This is part of the job, and it is important that leaders avoid passing this stress on to staff. However, because of this, leadership can also be extremely isolating, and leaders can struggle to understand the drivers of their own behaviour and the impact these have on their organisation.

It has always been my view that healthy organisations need healthy leaders. I have written about this elsewhere and it is reflected in some of the work the Further Education Trust for Leadership has commissioned and published. Leaders can only create a culture that is open, trusting, democratic and responsible if they are able to demonstrate and be on the receiving end of those characteristics themselves.

'Stress and overwork are common'

However, colleges do not operate in an environment that is particularly conducive to calm, human-centred and healthily open and collaborative ethical leadership. Stress and overwork are common. Things can go wrong and leaders make mistakes. This is normal and it should be highlighted.

Nevertheless, even a cursory look at the wider context should tell you that, except in very rare cases, such issues cannot and should not be treated as issues of one individual’s personal failure. Of course, there have to be systems in place and a culture where people are not afraid to raise issues that are troubling them. Maintaining what Mark Stein refers to as the “good self” of an organisation is everybody’s responsibility. But it is true also that people’s lives and livelihoods matter and, where they are in the balance, we should choose our language with caution.

Leaders have a responsibility to consider their own mental health and to take steps to ensure they understand what drives their own behaviour. They, after all, are people too, subject to the same desires, drives, hopes and hang-ups as everyone else. When things so wrong, they too need someone to talk to, a place or network of support. As a leader, it can be difficult to raise issues within the organisation, even and particularly with the chair and board of governors, who are there with a duty of care to support as well as scrutinise the work of principals.

I would like to see us do more, as a sector, to create spaces to which sector leaders can bring their problems and the challenges of their roles, and seek and take help and advice without fear of judgement. We need to take the mental wellbeing of all our staff seriously, leaders included. I know that this is something the Association of Colleges is considering.

Pointing the finger

I think too that we need to think hard about accountability and oversight. Who, specifically, are the right people to assess a principals’ performance in post? Further education is a hugely complex sector and colleges are exceptionally complex creatures, and where there is complexity, understanding and comprehension are often diluted. Transparency is vital but we need to make sure that the people who evaluate what we do are the right people – people who know what they are looking at, understand how a college’s location makes it unique and thus comprehend the complex world in which we work.

Finally, there is a broader issue here too, which goes beyond FE. Public debate in Britain has become exceptionally adversarial and abrasive in recent years. There is a culture of blame, which seeks to point the finger rather than to understand. We need badly to develop more human and humane ways of talking about the things that make us angry, oppositional or afraid, including failure.

Perhaps a way to doing this is to think, when things go wrong, not of who is to blame, but of how best to fix it, recognising that that is a common ground we all share. Problems within an organisation are rarely fixed simply by parachuting in a new head. We need to appreciate that things are a lot more complex than that. At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our organisations, and very rarely are any of us, singly, to take the blame.

As I talk with colleague principals these days, I am overawed by what it is they head up, with its complex demands in terms of the leadership of contemporary inter-dependency. I am left with admiration at how determined they are to continue doing it: my respects to them at this time.

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

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