A skilled response from between the lines
It is nearly 18 months since a survey carried out at Worthing Sixth Form College revealed that many staff were dissatisfied with their line managers. While middle managers were generally happy with the direction they received from senior staff, the majority of the college's 150 lecturers, who report to middle managers, said they needed clearer guidance.
The 12 men and women who make up the college's middle management tier themselves recognised that they could do better - especially when it came to managing people.
Most acknowledged they had been promoted without adequate preparation. Heather Moore, the human resources manager who arrived at Worthing two years ago from the Teacher Training Agency, says: "People were actually doing a pretty good job given that they hadn't had much training."
Coming from outside FE, she was surprised to learn that college managers are frequently placed in positions of responsibility without training and expected to get on with their work. "Most employers or industries train up their managers to take on these responsibilities."
Ms Moore, one of Worthing's 12 middle managers, approached her colleagues to find out the areas where they felt they needed to do better. And here came the answers: recruitment and induction of staff, monitoring performance and change management.
The result was a six-day programme for all 12 middle managers held over six months. Competencies drawn from the occupational standards set out precisely what a middle manager needed to do to become more proficient in each area. One session on recruitment, led by Peter Burton, head of corporate training at a Brighton and Hove council, had staff practising interviews with job-seekers provided by the Emploment Service.
While the programme swallowed up about a quarter of the college's pound;36,000 staff development budget, Ms Moore is convinced it was worthwhile. The standards, she says, gave the programme more structure, but the starting point has to be the skills people require for their job.
"It's difficult to just take the standards and translate them into a programme," she explains. "You have to find out where the problems are from the punter's point of view and then devise something which will meet everybody's needs."
Hilary Bates, head of arts and languages, found the section on monitoring performance and giving feedback to employees especially useful. "One area that all of us felt was the least congenial part of our job was dealing with tricky staffing issues and diffusing conflict." says Ms Bates, who manages a team of about 40.
Although the Worthing programme did not lead to any qualification, the managers can point to its Fento standards basis as evidence that their new skills are portable should they wish to apply for a job elsewhere in FE.
John Robinson, the principal, sees the standards as a tool allowing colleges or training providers to offer programmes in line with a common national framework. "They are a set of national competencies which have ownership within the sector," he says.
While last July's staff survey showed that employees were more satisfied with middle managers, it is probably too early to judge the training's exact impact. The Worthing programme is about to be repeated at 15 other colleges in East and West Sussex using a pound;53,000 grant from the FEFC standards fund.
Heather Moore sees this as an example of the FE sector working together, and helps get over the problem of programmes becoming too customised for an individual college. "The sector is very good at sharing knowledge and expertise. You won't get the sort of consortia we have in FE in other industries," she says.