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Team spirits knit new safety net

Sharing responsibility and accountability is the key to survival after independence, says Judith Round.

Now that incorporation and its after-shocks are well behind us, it is worth reviewing the impact it has had on the organisational cultures of colleges.

Two significant changes have emerged. First, while much of the original emphasis of incorporation was on changing college principals into chief executives accountable to their corporations, and accounting officers answerable to the FEFC and thus to Parliament, the consequence has been to stress the operational abilities of college management teams. However hard-working and talented, no principal, chief executive or accounting officer can survive without the support of a strong team of well-trained and reponsive managers.

It is managers in colleges who have had to set the new agenda, to take on board radical changes, and to adapt external edicts to the individual institution. It has been for those same managers to communicate the changes to staff, to present the positive and to persuade the doubters. No matter how charismatic the principal, without the conduits that managers provide, staff in colleges will never share a clear sense of purpose .

Incorporation and a common tendency across the sector to flatten hierarchies have also brought into the definition of management many who would not previously have seen themselves in that role. The untying of local authority bonds has meant that many support staff have taken on roles and responsibilities they would never have dreamt of when all problems and queries had to be referred to county hall. Any college that fails to recognise the potential of such managers does so at its peril Colleges would also be the poorer if they did not recognise the management skills of those academic staff who have pioneered the initiatives of the past few years. Such managers have the delicate task of combining heavy teaching loads with cross-college or faculty responsibilities. It is they who take the flak when staff react against change, when colleagues sharing the same staffroom refuse to contemplate what is new or to re-order familiar priorities.

Such people must be given their rightful places in college management teams with appropriate recognition and reward. Every effort must also be made to give them the kind of career development opportunities that will allow them to play an increasing role in the future of the college.

The second major change has been the growing awareness that all must work together to ensure the future - if not the survival - of the institution. As people in the business world are well aware, "survival is not compulsory". There was for too long in further education, as in the rest of the public sector, a sense that what stood the test of time of the last 10, 20, or 50 years would last forever; that old practices and beliefs did not need to change to meet the demands of the marketplace.

One thing that has become clear since 1993 is that there is no guarantee whatsoever that any individual college will survive. We have often bewailed the fact that there is no national organisation of our supporters - "the Friends of FE". That has not changed. The local pride which in the past could prevent the local education committee ridding itself of loss-making concerns no longer operates to the same degree . There is no safety net, no comforting mother's lap to return to, no other organisations to which surplus staff can be transferred.

Understandably, many staff who have spent long years in LEA-induced security do not like this situation. A few have refused to acknowledge it exists. But most, seeing the gathering momentum of mergers, the growing number of colleges facing financial cutbacks, are coming to appreciate that all employed by the corporation share responsibility for its survival.

Individuals may not care for the way that national policies are decided and may dislike the political agenda, but they must decide whether or not they support the institution in which they work. Talk about maintaining academic standards and serving student needs is empty once the institution no longer exists. We can only help the deprived and disadvantaged in our communities while our doors are still open and the curriculum we offer is broad and coherent.

* Judith Round is President of the Association for College Management

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