Don't turn managers' backs to the future

25th April 1997 at 01:00
I don't know whether Dr Johnson had FE in mind when he said: "The business of life is to go forward". In March I went on some of the soft, pink-knuckle rides at Thorpe Park with my daughter and friends as part of her birthday treat.

We certainly went forward, at breathtaking speed and impossible trajectories. Rather like management in FE . . . except that the ride stops after about three minutes. I don't know if there's an orientation course similar to those for flight phobics to allow us wimps to enjoy these rides, but managers in the rollercoaster world of FE certainly benefit from appropriate orientation in relation to their environment and their own personal response to it.

The FE context has changed markedly since incorporation. In a recent Further Education Development Agency senior curriculum managers' forum, virtually all those present quoted at least one of three significant changes affecting their college: a new principal, a management restructuring, or a major building. Incorporation wasn't the introduction to FE's "Brave New World"; it was the start of a series.

In FE, the traditional stable hierarchies no longer exist. Teams form and re-form as and when required. Responsibilities for budgets, people, organisation and quality are devolved. Partnerships are forged and sundered. Information technology is changing both what we can receive and the ways in which we handle it. New, young managers as well as old ones have to survive and thrive in this microclimate.

The FEFC's Measuring Achievement - Further Education College Performance Indicators 1994-95 indicates that the quality of management is the key factor in a college's effectiveness. High-quality management development - planned, innovative and diverse - is one of the keys to quality in management. This is partly about developing individuals' skills and potential, and partly about improving organisations from within.

In December, FEDA announced a new, sector-wide initiative in management development to help managers in FE face the challenge of complex responsibilities in a changing environment. The scheme, with a choice of routes for senior, middle and first-line managers, is designed to reflect the demand for new approaches and more advanced skills in the sector. Comprehensive national, regional and local coverage is essential.

The initiative is likely to include some high-profile training courses. But management development is not just about training courses. Most senior management development happens to managers in context through their daily work, rather than separately. The prime management development issue is how to encourage managers to learn through and from experience and how to identify where this learning needs to be structured or supplemented to improve their workplace effectiveness.

This is not a pursuit for loners. "Education is a people business," to quote Sue Parker, principal of Gwent Tertiary College, in a recent "FE Focus". This applies to staff as much as to learners. Effective management is about behaviour and relationships, at least as much as it is about money and systems; and they develop best when people progress together.

Courses can play a leading role, but management development consists of much more: networks and focus groups; on-line information, preferably interactive; investigating good practice exemplars, in which the sector is rich; benchmarking against other sectors; action research with immediate practical payoffs; and so on. A comprehensive approach to management development will encompass a range of such activities.

The key questions in management development in 1997 are likely to be: What new skills are needed by first-line, middle and senior managers in FE?

Or, slightly differently: What skills are needed by new first-line, middle and senior managers in FE?

And overriding them all: How can we ensure that managers at all levels have the right opportunities to learn how to be successful?

"Ready . . . Fire . . . Aim!" is the modus operandi of the hard-pressed manager who needs to act fast with inadequate preparation for the task. Management development helps both to improve the aim and get the sequence into a more rational order. It might also produce a suitable metaphor for the co-operative styles of management appropriate to the 21st century.

John Brenchley is head of training at the Further Education Development Agency

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