Some colleges accused of false promises and dubious ethics

26th June 2009 at 01:00
The future for further education lies in `transformational leadership', according to a critical friend

One of further education's "gurus" has suggested that "many colleges are still run by leaders who do not really have much idea or control of what goes on in their classrooms".

Sir Bernard O'Connell, who was principal of an English college for 20 years and was knighted for his services to FE in 2004, goes so far as to claim that some colleges are guilty of "dubious ethics" in claiming that they offer students a superb education.

He is urging the sector in Scotland to practise "transformational leadership", in which staff feel "incredibly valued" and students are not short-changed.

Writing in the latest edition of the FE journal, Broadcast, he says: "The single most important indicator of the quality of leadership in a college is the level of variation of performance by various curriculum teams: that is, one curriculum team might offer outstanding provision but another offers poor provision, while others offer a variation between the two.

"Principals and senior managers often market their colleges with false promises by saying to prospective students: `Come to our college and you will receive a superb education,' knowing the truth is that, if the students go to that college, it will be hit and miss as to whether they receive a superb education.

"Apart from the dubious ethics of the position of those making such misleading promises, the question is, what are the leaders of that college doing about quality assurance?"

Sir Bernard, author of Creating an Outstanding College, noted that senior managers tried a more hands-on approach after colleges became incorporated after 1993. But this often descended into a "command and control" system in which many "over-reacted to the new environment by becoming control freaks, pouring down initiative overloads and ill-thought out control systems on middle managers and staff, distracting them from what was really important - teaching and learning."

As a result, staff morale suffered, "often leading to industrial action, resistance to changes of any sort, and people becoming cynical, blaming, negative, demotivated, doing the minimum and keeping their heads down in a climate of fear."

Sir Bernard said all colleges should have done what a minority actually did. "They should have tried to achieve the extraordinarily difficult feat of winning the hearts and minds of middle managers and staff, taking people with them in the introduction of the necessary initiatives, including those that introduced more rigorous approaches to quality assurance like lesson observation", he said.

In a "command and control" regime, lesson observation was perceived as "checking up" on people, "spying" on them, "trying to catch them out" and "providing the evidence to sack them".

But, Sir Bernard added, in a college which focused on winning hearts and minds - what he called "transformational leadership" - lesson observation was seen as a valid and supportive way of providing positive feedback to individuals, so that meaningful training and improvement could be made.

Poor performance should be tackled rigorously, he added, but not through lesson observation.

The most important thing for college managers to do was to make staff feel "incredibly valued". If they wished to run an outstanding college, they must have "motivated, enthusiastic, committed staff who will always go the extra mile, not staff who, as in "command and control" regimes, do the minimum and resist change.

"Senior managers need to understand that high staff morale is not just about being caring - itself a sufficiently worthy reason for making staff feel valued - but it is also about being effective in delivering high- quality provision to students," he said.

"It also requires something that has been notoriously weak in the college sector - that is, a human relations strategy that includes best practice approaches to communications, consultations, recognition and staff development."

Sir Bernard concluded: "Transformational leadership builds on the premise that the vast majority of people are not a problem, that most people come to work to do their best and to work hard, and that the task of leaders is to create a college system that enables people to give of their best."

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