We'll turn your lights on

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
She believes that her centre's work is having a dramatic effect on colleges, because it is challenging traditional hierarchies. Lynne Sedgmore, head of the CEL, explains why to Alison Shepherd

As leadership becomes a political hot potato it is possible that Lynne Sedgmore could offer a few words of advice to a beleaguered prime minister. As chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL), she could no doubt tell Tony Blair that the age of the heroic leader has long passed. That today, organisations - even parliamentary parties - demand managers who share power as well as responsibility.

Since taking the helm of the centre in April last year, she has enlisted support across the learning and skills sector to help it to "foster and support leadership improvement, transformation and capacity". A leader who can gain the simultaneous respect and co-operation of the Association of Colleges, the staff and student unions as well as the Government in all its incarnations must be doing something right. She believes part of her success comes from her 23-year background in colleges, culminating in being principal of Guildford, from where she moved to lead the centre.

"This sector is in my blood. I have the same passion for the leaders as I had for my students and, as an ex-principal, I am mindful of what they need and what it means to them," she says. "There has been an incredible amount of support for me - over and above what I had expected when I took on the post."

Sedgmore believes she leads as she hopes others will after sampling the many courses offered by her centre. "This is distributive leadership in practice," she says pointing to a desk in the corner of the large office in central London the CEL calls home. "I didn't want an office cut off from everyone else. Here I feel as if I'm really part of the team."

That word "distributive" is one reason why agencies such as hers have to overcome the distrust of education's foot soldiers. It is the vocabulary of new management that flows from the lips of initiates, but it is one in which few are fluent. It is also is one of the main planks of the centre's training programmes.

Many years ago, colleges were led by people - mainly white men - who saw themselves as supermen, who believed they could carry all their staff and students to success on their broad shoulders. All was well until the disempowered middle managers had to fill the huge gap left when the heroic principal moved on. Then came the distributive leader, adept at delegating down and sharing responsibility, if not the power. Now, the species has evolved into "blended leadership". This is not, as many of those foot soldiers may dream, the result of kitchen Magimix accident, but a style which takes the best elements of both previous incarnations.

"Research has shown that FE staff like the devolved power and responsibility of distributive leadership, but it can lead to a certain amount of fuzziness, where nobody is sure who is in charge at a particular time," says Sedgmore. So now the centre is working towards the blended leadership model, which retains a principal who is definitely in charge, but supported by a range of "engaged and contributive" middle managers.

Many programmes are aimed at these middle managers, but titles such as Roots to Treetops, Explorer, and Horizons must cause a few wry grimaces.

Never mind the titles, Sedgmore is convinced they are making a difference to the sector.

"Middle managers have tremendous power. It is them principals rely on to feed up information; they have a huge influence over curriculum planning and have an important role in supporting staff," she says. "But in some colleges they feel disempowered and pressured."

This she says is fuelling the looming crisis in the skills sector that expects to see 60 per cent of its leaders retire in the next 10 years. And if middle managers feel frustration and dissatisfaction, why should they step up to more of the same.

"I have seen people on our courses who come alive. They begin the course thinking 'I can't do that', but start to believe they can. A light suddenly goes on inside them. Their leadership light has been turned on. I've seen it happen. It is part of our job to assist them in keeping it alight when they return to their posts."

This can be particularly true for black or ethnic minority staff, who could be forgiven for thinking that they don't fit into traditional management styles, Sedgmore says. "Distributive leadership allows for different styles. The superhero model forces someone into a particular mould. But now different people can bring different approaches that are allowed and valued."

If the jargon is one factor that could distance the centre from staff, another is the high cost of the courses - pound;6,000 for some programmes is considered too steep for stretched budgets. While recognising that pockets are not deep, Sedgmore urges principals to invest in the training.

"Nobody has ever said we are not value for money. Some of the courses, which are high quality and high value, would cost upwards of pound;14,000 in the private sector. All I can do is encourage them to invest in their leadership needs.

"Early evaluation shows that it has an impact on students' achievement. We are leading for our learners."

The Centre for Excellence in Leadership also suffers from being compared to similar institutions in other sectors. "The National College for School Leadership was given a budget of pound;99 million a year. We were given Pounds 14 million over three years, which is why sixth-form teachers tell me NCSL courses are free.

"I have frequently fought with ministers for an increase. I am an optimist and always up for a challenge. It can be frustrating. But I am proud of how much we have done with so little." The "we" is not just the centre, but the whole sector, according to Sedgmore.

"The incredible goodwill and commitment from the sector humbles me. It is a real partnership. That's what has kept me going through all the challenges.

Some of those partners are on our advisory body and are always ready to rattle and shake us when they think we need it. I love them, because the whole sector has stood by us."

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