The role of a senior leader in any sector is complex and multi-faceted – and further education is no different. Its complexity emanates from the need for the leader to learn and hone many skills.
A senior leader in an FE college, for example, needs to understand the business of education. This can include: the intricacies of the role of the teacher; what enables a learner to thrive and succeed; curriculum development and relevance; employment prospects in their locality; the quality improvement process and how to measure their effectiveness; and curriculum management.
A senior leader also needs to understand and be effective in the business of financial, estates and human resource management. Most college principals have been forced to deal with financial cuts more than once in the last decade. Many have had to initiate and manage major capital builds for their colleges, costing tens of millions of pounds and including disposal of land or assets, as well as bidding for capital grants, working with consultants, architects and contractors.
Other sides to the work of a principal include building effective relationships with local authorities, enterprise partnerships, politicians, employer groups, MPs, sector skills bodies and academy trusts.
All of these dimensions to the work of a leader in FE are conducted to varying degrees of success, but are generally done well.
There is another area, however, that is largely ignored: sector leadership. The vacuum when it comes to this strand of leadership has contributed to the further education sector’s continued neglect.
This issue must not be confused with the work that many leaders do on the national policy front. This work, including taking part in government-commissioned reviews, is good in the main and contributes a great deal to FE. Sir Frank McLoughlin’s Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning is a case in point, and it has had a positive impact on policy.
But while there are some good and effective voices in the sector, a cohesive sector voice is absent. For the FE sector to find its voice, joint working on the issues facing it must become the norm. But, all too often, this is thwarted by the leadership dichotomy. Being a “sector leader” doesn’t always sit comfortably alongside the responsibilities of leading an individual college.
Allow me to explain. Leading a college involves working to raise its profile, and competing with rival institutions for learners, employer initiatives, growth, business, international links and so on. Being a sector leader, on the other hand, means working collaboratively on national policy initiatives. This can include challenging and shaping policies that might bring benefits for the sector, the economy and the country as a whole – but that might have a negative impact on your college.
This reality needs to be acknowledged if the FE sector is to take a lead in resolving national policy issues and implementation.
Matters relating to economic growth, skills challenges, productivity challenges and community cohesion, in so far as they relate to skills and training, need to be led by the sector. This role can have a profound impact on our economy, our communities and on the way FE is treated and rated by policymakers, employers, the community and our learners.
Raising our voice
A consequence of this vacuum is that there is little in the way of a unified sector voice when it comes to important matters such as skills policy, productivity, education reform, funding settlements and community cohesion.
What is lacking is an overarching sector voice that would make us a “go to” authority, actively sought out by politicians and policymakers. So for instance, where is the “sector” voice on initiating, shaping or implementing technical skills delivery which introduced university technical colleges and is now introducing institutes of technology?
Though I see this as a leadership failure, I do not see it as the sole failure of sector leaders. This vacuum can trace its origins back to college incorporation – the neoliberal policy discourse, which seemed to suggest that market forces and competition would help create a skills ecosystem that would meet the needs of the economy and society, did not deliver on its promise.
Colleges were incentivised to put themselves before the needs of the sector as a whole. As a result of incorporation, a collegiate and cohesive sector was never formed. This is just as much a policy failure as a sector leadership failure. I believe policymakers carried and continue to carry a significant amount of the responsibility for this failure.
An interesting comparison can be drawn between this vacuum in FE and the clear and well-articulated sector voices representing higher education and even the NHS.
It is time for a rethink. It is incumbent upon college leaders such as myself to move beyond institutional self-interest and recognise that, by working together in the best interests of the sector as a whole, we have an altogether more important role to play.
Ali Hadawi CBE is principal and chief executive of Central Bedfordshire College