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Stalking the wild manager with knife and blunderbuss;FE Focus

Jim Ross calls for a close season on management baiting.

With the imminent demise of fox hunting it is amusing to note the emergence of a new blood sport - FE manager hunting.

The rules are flexible but normally consist of people with guns of the sawn off variety who blast indiscriminately at whole flocks of managers. No prior experience or skill is required. Indeed aficionados make rather a point of ensuring that facts don't cloud their aim or judgement.

All this is perhaps harmless enough when conducted in the privacy of their own estates. But when, as has been the case recently, the prey is pursued in public through the pages of respectable newspapers, it is time to call a halt before bystanders imagine that the claims are legitimate.

First of all let me declare my vested interests. I am a member of a board of management of an FE college. My role at the Scottish Further Education Unit includes providing programmes for management development and assisting FE colleges with organisational reviews. I have experience of management in engineering, electronics and financial services. I have been well managed and badly managed, and no doubt have provided both to others. I come into regular contact with FE managers at all levels including board chairmen, principals, senior managers, heads of department and team leaders. I mention these things both to acknowledge bias and to claim a degree of insight.

The overwhelming majority of managers in FE colleges are, I believe, ordinary decent people doing their level best in difficult circumstances to maintain and improve the everyday processes involved in running a college.

As in any walk of life there are examples of inadequate or simply bad managers. But as an analysis of HMI and other reports would confirm, these incidences are rare.

Management styles vary. Some have a preference towards being directive, some to consensus and some carefully adjust their approach to the demands of the situation. There is no one best way.

It might be human to see managers as custodians of some organisational prison. But we should be aware that if we construct our world this way, then the managers are prisoners too. It seems to me that most changes for good or ill in modern working life have come from market forces, which include an increasingly dominant technology. To credit individual managers with influence in such changes is endearing but rather naive.

It is a generalisation, but I think not a rash one, to say that college managers recognise a need to improve. But they are subject to external political forces. Over the last decade this has meant an orientation first towards competition, and now towards collaboration. All this has been against a background of insufficient financial resources and a funding model that has made a mockery of forward planning.

To be even an average manager in these circumstances might reasonably be seen as an achievement. Yet since 1993 the FE sector has managed to grow at 20 per cent and attain efficiency savings of four to five per cent each year.

The sportsmen with their blunderbusses may not like to admit it, but the FE sector is one of the most carefully supervised. Colleges are inspected not only by HMI, but also by the National Audit Office, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the Scottish Quality Management System and other accrediting bodies. It is not insignificant that over half of colleges in Scotland have Investors in People status.

Boards of management can be somewhat eclectic groups but often provide sensible advice. I come across experienced and able professionals far more often than the Arthur Daleys of popular misconception.

For example, the board which I know best includes a senior lawyer, a former polytechnic principal, the managing director of a significant local business, the director of operations of a health board, and a senior director of a large power company. Until he recently became an MSP we also had the leader of the local council. All provide their support on a voluntary basis.

We don't know all the staff in the college, partly because most of our time is provided in the evening after our day jobs. But we do know something about the education needs of our local community and the national agenda for lifelong learning. And we do know how to contribute to strategic planning and monitor progress against objectives. I am confident the current management review by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council will find a well-managed sector.

Jim Ross is a principal consultant at the Scottish Further Education Unit.

He writes in a personal capacity.

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