College managers need to know about education, despite what the Government thinks
The natural order suggests college principals will have had a decent amount of experience as lecturers, enhanced by administrative and management responsibilities.
The Government seems to be questioning this natural order, especially in the report Professionalisation of the learning and skills sector - a title that either unfortunately or deliberately asserts that current management processes are amateur.
True, this report considers the need to encourage talented managers to apply for senior posts. To encourage them, it offers a qualification that all new principals will require.
Yet, as we have heard from the National Association of Head Teachers'
annual conference last week, introduction of a similar qualification in schools has failed to ease the shortage of heads. Around 1,200 schools - responsible for educating 500,000 pupils - are without headteachers.
Moreover, the proposed qualification links to the Government's idea that a talented manager can manage any kind of business.
So, the groundwork is laid for a future in which colleges may be managed by individuals recruited from outside the sector. One reason given for this proposal is the advancing age of college managers. But this simply reflects the fact that it takes time to accumulate the relevant experiences.
Parachuting in outsiders - who may be younger but will lack that experience - is no solution to the needs of the education sector. Yet, this seems to be part of the Government's intention.
Those not well versed in educational experiences may be just the kind of managers needed to impose government policies, without worrying too much about the attitudes of existing staff - attitudes they will not share.
This may be part of an attempt to exert centralised control over the education system. The educational sociologist Basil Bernstein argues that the state is increasingly controlling education, where "dominant agents drawn from the field of production now have crucial management functions".
Arguably, those from the business world would be able to deal with the realpolitik of new government proposals. After all, competition is on the increase, and colleges may need to fight to retain, and enhance, market share. Indeed, the very focus on skills that was central to Sir Andrew Foster's inquiry report on the future of FE suggests a bringing together of the needs of education and the economy.
If their needs are so similar, then surely college managers have much to learn from business. And what better way for those lessons to be learned than by the imposition of managers with no experience of education.
Oddly, because they are usually less linked to business, universities have occasionally appointed vice-chancellors from outside the sector. So, a handful of university leaders have experience of running large businesses.
And, on appointment, they demand significant salaries, perhaps less than the private sector, but still markedly more than the job previously merited.
This is an instant source of irritation for lecturers in the hard-pressed FE sector, where staff salaries are depressed.
These imported university managers can cause problems, as a result of their practice and handling of staff, as easily as they can because of their salaries. Yet, the small number of university managers appointed from outside have worked in companies with extensive research elements - and research is more important to some universities than teaching - and normally they have worked as lecturers before leaving for commercial research.
So, the managers imported to universities have very similar experiences to those working within universities. In marked contrast, the experiences of business and further education are clearly distinct.
Education is not like other businesses. Education matters; that is why teachers, lecturers and managers care about it. Students are not merely clients who can simply be allocated a service provider and an account manager and left to get on with it. Students, especially some in colleges and associated provision, need support - many of them a good deal of it.
In fact, the Government has recognised that colleges are not merely about skills. The white paper Raising skills, improving lifestyles does stress skills, but also allows space for personal and community development. Such themes have been central to the ethos of FE colleges.
The Government can recognise the limitations of a merely business and skill focused approach. The links between business and further education must not be regarded as seamless.
The suggestion that managers can be recruited from outside will not benefit students or colleges.
It may be appealing to the Government because it implies a group of mere managers who are both docile in accepting government policy and vigorous in pursuing it. But it is a step too far.
College managers must be steeped in educational experience. This does not mean that they must have spent their whole life within colleges, just the bulk of it.
Graham Fowler is a writer, researcher and consultant in FE