At the age of 26, Nikki Yoxall got a promotion at her college. All of a sudden, she found herself in the role of learning technology manager, responsible for a team of 40 lecturers and a multi-million-pound budget.
“I had imposter syndrome,” she recalls. “I asked myself, ‘Should I really be doing this job?’ I had my direct reports telling me about [their] children who were older than me. It is also challenging to have a difficult conversation with someone who is the same age as your mum.”
Now 32, Yoxall has progressed to a senior leadership role as director of learning and teaching at Moray College in north-east Scotland. She says that seeking out mentors and having supportive managers helped her to develop.
But these opportunities are not always within everyone’s reach. For ambitious teaching staff, taking the next step up the career ladder can feel overwhelming.
Without extensive training, reaching the middle-management rung – including roles such as programme manager, subject leader and curriculum manager – proves difficult for many.
In addition, the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF) annual workforce data analysis shows that in the past three years, middle managers have made up an increasing proportion of the overall college workforce (see graph, page 55).”
But, with almost half of college chief executives being 55 or older, the need to cultivate the next generation of FE leaders has never been greater.
Recognising the importance of the professional development needs of middle managers – the sector’s “engine room” – the ETF is developing a new programme to address the problem, called Leading from the Middle.
The changing demands on leadership and a lack of CPD at middle-management level were among the challenges facing further education highlighted in a Department for Education-commissioned report, Teaching, Leadership and Governance in FE, published in February.
A subsequent ETF-commissioned research paper, which paved the way for its new development programme, says there is an “overwhelming view” that there is a need for a development programme for middle managers, because they are the “forgotten layer” in terms of investment in training and development.
Through interviews with sector stakeholders, authors Pauline Odulinski and Helen Deane conclude that such a programme is vital: “Most responses suggested it is really essential and important for middle managers to not only be aware of policy changes and requirements, but also to have a very clear sight of how they are built into the organisation’s strategic plan and priorities, and how they, as individuals, along with their teams, are responsible for implementing these changes.”
CPD to help new middle leaders adjust to the demands of their role is vital, according to Jo Maher, principal and chief executive of Boston College in Lincolnshire.
At 33, Maher is the youngest college principal in the country. Having progressed through the ranks herself, she believes more support for middle managers is essential to help them on their journeys.
“Funding for CPD is one of the barriers. Investment has been prioritised for the lecturing staff, for Ofsted, say, or for the senior leaders. Sometimes we do miss that head of department, programme manager, curriculum manager layer because the funding is tough in FE.”
Those seeking to develop their skills may take a course with the Chartered Management Institute or the Institute of Leadership and Management, but Maher says that price, again, is a hurdle.
“These are expensive programmes. If you put someone on a CIM level 5 or level 6, you’re talking £4,000. If you look at an ILM level 7, it would be great to get everyone on it, but it costs £6,000.”
Sir Frank McLoughlin, the ETF’s associate director for leadership, says that the demographics of senior leaders in the sector show that there is an urgent need for action. “Most [retire] around the age of 60, so we have to ask, ‘How do we build a pipeline from the lower levels of leadership to CEO level?’”
McLoughlin, former CEO of City and Islington College in London, says leadership is key to the success of organisations. “Too often in this sector we appoint people and there is no support for them,” he adds. “There was a feeling that the development of middle managers was for colleges and not the sector as a whole. It is not just a college issue, it is a sector issue.”
The ETF’s Leading from the Middle course will train up a minimum of 45 middle managers by early 2019. The course was developed by the consultancy FE Associates, and will involve one-to-one mentoring, online learning and group sessions.
Managing director of FE Associates Matt Atkinson says the course was developed because “no one really prepares you for middle management”.
Atkinson, a former principal and chief executive of Bath College, says leadership “is about standing out” and aspirational staff should not be shy about their ambitions.
“As a society, it is seen as ‘not very British’ to show that you are ambitious. Say you’re a lecturer in a college. As soon as you declare you want to be a leader, you can lose [the support of] your peers.”
The middle managers of today should be seen as the senior leaders of tomorrow, according to Catherine Lloyd, who leads the Bedford College Research Network, and Coventry University researcher Peter Wolstencroft. The pair co-wrote a paper on FE middle management that was presented to the Association for Research in Post-Compulsory Education’s annual conference in July. “As the sector needs to build leadership capacity, it could do this by utilising the experience and expertise of those in the middle of the organisation to help meet the current and future challenges,” the report states.
“We suggest that more attention needs to be given to middle-management roles and how these are defined to enable this. Further work is required to explore the role middle managers could play in the development of leadership capacity within the sector.”
The peculiar challenge posed by middle management in an FE context is that the role is situated in the “buffer zone” between leaders and teachers, explains Ann Briggs, a former college teacher-turned-manager. She has written extensively about the role of middle leaders, including the 2006 title Middle Management in FE (Essential FE Toolkit).
“Middle leaders are the buffer zone,” Briggs says. “Often between two quite different ideologies: the seemingly necessary bureaucracy and cost-saving that keep the college running and afloat, and the desire to get on with a worthwhile job and make a difference to students’ lives. They will normally have been recruited from the latter group, and have to learn quickly on-the-job how to reconcile the two ideologies.
“Speaking personally, it was this mediating role that fascinated me when I was an FE middle leader, and that made me choose the topic for my doctoral work. But no one teaches you how to do it – you have to find your own way, often through observing good and less good examples of practice.”
Observation and coaching are important tools that future leaders can use in their personal development, according to Steve Mostyn, co-programme director for the Preparing for CEO course delivered at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, in partnership with the ETF.
Finding a supportive mentor is vital, Mostyn believes. “Through the experience of the Preparing for CEO course, the idea of role-modelling has come up so much. To have ‘someone who believes in me’ is useful at any stage in your career.”
In Yoxall’s case, being coached by a senior leader, who posed challenging questions about the nature of the role, was transformational. The process of coaching helped her to overcome her sense of being an imposter and develop her emotional intelligence. “It can be totally life-changing,” she says.
“The stories I used to tell myself when I doubted myself were self-perpetuating and totally wrong. [Coaching] helped me to be more confident and a better manager.”
For Maher, who herself completed the Preparing for CEO programme, seeking professional mentors both inside and outside of the FE sector has proved hugely beneficial.
“Sometimes I do think it comes down to individuals, investing in people and caring about your direct reports and your managers in the same way that we care about our students,” she says.
“I think there is a lot of competition in the sector. I have felt it in this role, in terms of comments [from other people] about my age or speed of development. For me, I think the more we support each other, the better. That is what gives me more satisfaction than anything and we need more of that.
“We need training programmes to be more accessible. I think residential block release [courses], and taking time out when we have such pressure to perform, is difficult. We have got to target them earlier in people’s careers. We have really got to identify talent a lot earlier to then build on that.”
George Ryan is an FE reporter for Tes. He tweets @GeorgeMRyan