'Principals who fail deserve compassion and dignity'

Education leaders face greater risks than ever before, so don't vilify those who get it wrong, urges David Hughes

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The departure of ministers from the government over Brexit may have been making national headlines – but the seven college CEOs and principals who have left their roles suddenly in recent weeks have each been covered in our own sector press and on social media, almost with a sense of excitement. We have also had some unedifying coverage of an eighth college leader being vilified over their performance at their previous college. It all feels like something of note is happening in our world.

I know all of these leaders personally; all are genuinely committed to education, to helping people transform their lives, to the role of colleges in making the world a better place. They are not evil, nor are they perfect, but who is? 

All of them wanted to do well and for their college to flourish. Like all of us, they are flawed and fallible. They were handsomely paid and they knew the risks; every CEO knows that their head is on the line if performance is poor. That has always and should always be the way, and the best leaders know when it is time to hand over to someone else.

Thousands of people in colleges have also lost their jobs because of the 30 per cent cut in funding over the past decade. Every single one of those redundancies is one too many – and there are thousands of stories of people whose commitment, passion and expertise has been lost, and who have suffered through no fault of their own. Their stories are as important as any of the leaders and I hope that the success of our campaign for more investment in colleges will see an upturn in jobs after so many losses. The loss of talented and dedicated people from teaching and supporting students, from running our colleges, is sad and wrong.

Leadership 'fraught with risk'

The past few weeks, though, feel very different for college leaders. It’s not been an easy time for anyone in further education, but the seven departures have fuelled an atmosphere in which more college leaders are now fearful for their own futures. That is not healthy, helpful or fair. We will struggle to create the culture, the environment and the institutions we want if the leadership roles are fraught with risk and potential vilification.

The risks of being a leader are higher than ever before. The basics have not changed: get the student numbers right, know your finances inside out and make sure quality passes the Ofsted test, and you should be ok. Those basics, though, are not as easy as they once were. It is simply getting tougher to make a college viable in terms of both finances and quality. The margins between success and failure are horribly fine.

Inadequate funding has increased the risk that something will go wrong and tip a college into financial troubles. None of that is a surprise given the lethal cocktail of reduced student cohorts, funding cuts and freezes, higher costs and the increased transparency in the social media age.

'Harsher and more rapid' accountability

As the risks have increased, so the accountability and regulatory regimes seem to have become harsher and more rapid. Harsh and rapid responses are absolutely fine where wrongdoing has been identified, but in cases of poor college performance, there needs to be a better way.

Changes in leadership have always been part of the regime; in my days in the funding agencies, I had many difficult conversations with college principals that resulted in resignations and new leadership for the rebuilding and recoveries that were needed. At the forefront of the approach was the future of the college, so we always planned carefully both the departure and the new arrival.

The outcome was the same – a college leader losing their job or a chair losing their voluntary role – but careful attention to the timing allowed for the effect to be less shocking, less destabilising and focused on recovery. Institutional morale and culture are fragile enough when funding is so inadequate, so care needs to be exercised not to damage them further through sudden and dramatic leadership changes.

Compassion needed?

At the same time, a managed change allows for a more dignified exit, which helps good people to continue to have careers and to be able to use their talents elsewhere (and let’s remember that people often learn most from their failures). That opportunity to move onto another job seems to me to be the acid test for any process in which a person’s livelihood is taken away from them. A clear-headed judgement that new leadership is required should be united with a compassionate approach for both the individual and the institution; both deserve that at the very least.

This isn’t about rewarding failure, but it is about having a system between government and its agencies and colleges that recognises failure will happen. It is inevitable in all walks of life and work. A mature system will identify problems early, support leaders to get it right and have dignified processes for replacing people should they fall short. We are all fallible and any one of us could get it wrong some day. Let’s work together to develop a system that respects people and doesn’t vilify them whenever that happens.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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