At the top, there’s a long way to fall

14th December 2018 at 00:00
With eight college leaders quitting their jobs in as many weeks, the pressure on principals and chief executives has never been greater. As the resignations pile up, George Ryan asks what does ‘good’ FE leadership look like? And what clues does the research give us about how to run a successful institution

Within days of taking up her new job at one of London’s biggest colleges in the autumn, Karen Redhead knew it was in trouble. Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College was on the verge of running out of money; as things stood, it wouldn’t have enough cash to pay its staff.

She realised that swift and decisive action was needed: she picked up the phone and asked the Department for Education for emergency financial support.

“This did take courage, but it was the best course of action for the college given the serious situation it found itself in,” Redhead says (see box, opposite). “I had sufficient confidence and courage to know that I could work with whatever mechanisms and processes would ensue after triggering the process.”

Budgets and bailouts

Running a college has arguably never been tougher. Finances are stretched: per-student funding for 16- to 18-year-olds hasn’t increased for five years, and the new insolvency regime being introduced next year means that one-off bailouts could soon become a thing of the past.

But balancing the books is only the start. Even for an experienced chief executive, managing shrinking budgets, complex stakeholder relationships, curriculum changes and staffing issues are not tasks for the faint-hearted. In this atmosphere, it is perhaps no surprise that eight college leaders quit their posts in as many weeks earlier this term.

Just last month, skills minister Anne Milton spoke of the importance of “robust financial management and leadership” in ensuring that a college is successful.

But what does strong leadership actually look like? Given the scale of the challenges they face, what strategies can college principals and chief executives use to ensure that a healthy future – and bank balance – is in store for the institutions they lead? And what evidence is available to inform the approach they should adopt?

If you are in any doubt about the influence that the person leading a college has on its performance, look no further than a 2017 research paper by Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela, Camille Terrier and Clémentine Van Effenterre (see references, page 53). The academics from the Centre for Vocational Education Research at the London School of Economics set out to quantify the importance of college principals.

They created a dataset of all the leaders of English FE institutions, from 2003 to 2015, then pieced together data on educational performance from individualised learner records, the national pupil database and the Higher Education Statistics Agency, as well as data on managerial approaches that could be gleaned from individualised staff records.

After scrutinising this 12-year period, the researchers came to a clear conclusion: “Principal quality matters for educational performance, over and above other aspects of the institutions that they run.” They further found that the effect of good leadership trickles down to the grades achieved by individual learners.

Having estimated the performance of college principals based on learner outcomes, the researchers ranked the leaders, from worst-performing to best. The report shows that switching from a principal in the bottom 25 per cent of performers to one in the top 25 per cent increases students’ probability of achieving a level 2 qualification by 15.9 percentage points. At level 3, the difference is 14.1 percentage points, and the probability of students enrolling on a qualification at level 4 or above is 3.7 percentage points higher.

Such differences in effectiveness could not be explained by principals’ gender, age or salary. But certain approaches favoured by the top-performers could be detected: the best principals employed a higher proportion of female staff, qualified teachers and staff on permanent contracts – and they tended to pay their teachers more.

The researchers state: “Our results show that switching from a principal who is at the bottom 25th percentile to a principal who is at the top 25th percentile would increase the share of teachers under a permanent contract by 12.9 percentage points, the share of female teachers by 5.5 percentage points and the share of certified teachers by 14.1 percentage points.” Similarly, a change from a principal among the bottom 25th percentile to one from the top 25th percentile of the “wage fixed-effects distribution would increase the average gross annual salary of teachers by £3,511”.

While this research identifies common traits shared by successful principals in terms of staffing, recruitment and remuneration, it does not tell us which approaches to leadership are the most effective.

‘Leadership of thinking’

The Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) was established to investigate and theorise about leadership in FE. In the 2015 FETL paper, Using Systems Theory in Leadership, Gabriella Braun and David Armstrong stress that the “leadership of thinking” is as crucial as the “leadership of doing”.

They explain: “While the leadership of ‘doing’ is of course important, it inevitably means acting within existing paradigms rather than questioning, reshaping or creating new ones. We believe the leadership of ‘doing’ is therefore insufficient on its own in today’s constantly changing and unstable environment. And leading ‘doing’ cannot ever be sufficient for leadership of organisations whose task is to further education and training.”

Braun and Armstrong say that systems theory “has an important place in the leadership of thinking, as it provides an understanding of the whole system and the interrelatedness of its parts”.

Systems theory is, in simple terms, the study of society as a complex arrangement of elements, including individuals and their beliefs, as they relate to a whole. In the context of an FE college, this could encompass areas such as “organisational design, structures, purpose, authority, roles, tasks and boundaries”, and how they interact, the report states.

It adds: “This includes the formal and informal, known and unconscious aspects of all these elements. Such dialogue is critical to flexible, changing organisations, and to ensuring staff continue to feel connected, understand their place in the whole and have a deep sense of, and commitment to, their roles.”

The trust’s president, Dame Ruth Silver, says the recent exit of colleagues from the sector is both curious and concerning, and she believes a greater understanding of systems theory could provide some answers. “The key test of a leader is: do you know how the world works and how to work the world? [The strongest leaders] know how to do that,” she explains. “When experienced colleagues who have managed successfully over generations are leaving, there is something else going on.”

One organisation determined to develop the current and next generation of FE leaders is the Education and Training Foundation (ETF). The organisation is carrying out a systemic approach to leadership training, with separate programmes developed for chief executives, college governors, finance officers and middle managers.

Sir Frank McLoughlin, the ETF’s associate director of leadership, says the vast majority of principals are “not prepared for the role” when they start. “It is critical to support people for the step up,” he says, pointing out three dimensions that candidates should be ready for: “First, running the college. Second, interfacing with the governing body to optimise their contribution. Third, steering the relationship with key stakeholders. We have got to help people with these roles. Keeping all those plates up in the air, while in a glass box in public, is very difficult.”

The ETF has partnered with the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to deliver training for prospective and early career principals through its “Preparing for CEO Programme”. More than 130 leaders across FE have taken the course, which focuses on developing skills in four key areas: leading financial security; directing the educational character of the college; taking responsibility for building high-performing teams; and working collaboratively to “drive excellence in governance”.

Complex and crucial

Academic analysis of the role of leadership in FE suggests that the qualities that make a good principal, such as those outlined above, can have a marked effect on the outcome for learners.

In 2005, a report published by the former Centre for Excellence in Leadership included interviews with staff at several FE and sixth-form colleges in which they were asked for their opinions on management. The researchers found that “although staff may have differing views on the quality of leadership within their organisations, all respondents were unanimous in their view that good leadership was crucial to the effective running of colleges”.

The authors state that much of the research on post-16 leadership focuses on data and neglects “the complex conditions, processes and outcomes of leadership relations and practices”. They continue: “In the search for law-like generalisations, orthodox studies have sometimes undervalued the importance of the context in which leadership processes occur. Equally, in their preoccupation with leaders, mainstream studies have often underestimated the importance of followers and their dynamic relationships with leaders.”

So which types of relationship can be identified in FE leaders? The chief executive of Analytic-Network Coaching, Simon Western, has categorised four types of leader in colleges: therapist, eco-leader, messiah and controller (see box, above right). These were outlined in his 2018 FETL-funded report, Hidden Leadership: exploring the assumptions that define further education leadership.

The study of colleges involved 330 survey responses from staff across the sector, and aimed to discover how people perceived leaders and also what leadership discourses were preferred and practised in colleges. It found that, while four types of leader had been identified, two tended to dominate in the FE sector: therapist and eco-leader.

The former, which 45 per cent of respondents said they preferred or actively practised, denotes a “preference for humanistic, relational and supportive leadership approaches”. Western says this shows that the sector sees leadership mainly in personal and relational terms: leaders are thought of as individuals influencing teams and individuals. This approach clearly has its strengths, but can mean the strategic, visionary and distributed dimensions of leadership are overlooked.

“Therapist leaders can be emotionally intelligent, supportive, nurturing and motivating,” he says, “but they can also be inward-looking and create ‘nurturing and dependency cultures’, missing the capacity to engage strategically in the bigger picture.”

On the other hand, eco-leaders, the label favoured by 27 per cent of respondents, “see their organisation as an ecosystem of interdependent parts and therefore take a more strategic position”, explains Western. “Eco-leaders also realise that organisations are best understood as ‘ecosystems within wider ecosystems’ – that is, that as leaders they have to look both at the internal ecosystems and connections in the organisation and at the external ecosystems that impact on them.”

FE, like most other sectors, is awash with idealised leadership theories and ideas, according to Western. “Our task is to take a fresh look beyond the rhetoric to try to find the hidden leadership assumptions that determine and limit leadership practice as it currently exists,” he explains.

So is a more academic approach to leadership the right way to solve the sector’s management woes? The insights gleaned from studies are an important part of the armoury at principals’ disposal, says Matt Hamnett, who served as chief executive of North Hertfordshire College from 2015-17.

But Hamnett, who is currently researching the role of leadership in FE, insists that external factors – such as cashflow problems, a disappointing Ofsted grade or intervention by the FE commissioner – can override the best-laid plans. “The sector operating context is unreasonably difficult; paucity of resource is only one part of a much wider set of issues that colleges and their leaders have to navigate,” he says of his findings, which are due to be published in a FETL report, Beating the Odds and the System, in the new year.

Leadership skills, it appears, will only go so far in remedying the situation unless we first address wider systemic issues. “We should definitely be talking about leadership,” says Hamnett. “But we should be doing so with a balanced perspective on the sector context.”

George Ryan is an FE reporter for Tes. He tweets @GeorgeMRyan

Turning around a college in crisis

Karen Redhead was appointed principal and chief executive of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College in September. Her first few weeks have been eventful, not least because of a scathing FE commissioner report, published last month, which blames the college’s former leadership for its financial woes. Here, Redhead shares her thoughts on delivering good leadership in challenging circumstances:

There is already a leadership crisis in further education colleges, and a number of deputy post-holders will be seriously considering whether or not they want to step up into the top position because of the challenges involved and also the high-stakes personal consequences if things go wrong. With the insolvency regime looming, and the low financial resilience in many colleges, if the only option is to trigger a formal process – and with high personal stakes and high-profile consequences – then leaders will continue to be reticent to step up unless we can create an early “no blame, no shame” process.

I had to trigger a formal process by admitting we were going to run out of money in early October and would require exceptional support funding to meet the payroll. This did take courage, but it was the best course of action for the college given the serious situation it found itself in. I had sufficient confidence to know that I could work with whatever mechanisms and processes would ensue after triggering the process.

Taking up a post in a college with complex and deep-rooted financial issues will test the skill set of even the most experienced chief executive or principal, yet many will be deterred from applying because of the risk of it wrecking an otherwise successful career and track record. An inexperienced leader, perhaps one in their first role, could easily be overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the issues that need to be rapidly addressed.

Resilience, agility and the ability to critically evaluate our own thinking are key to our success. I believe the best approach to situations that are turbulent, complex and uncertain is one of reflective leadership.

“This allows me to continually re-examine and evaluate the environment, as well as the actions I am taking. It also supports being open and transparent in conversations, as well as being a good listener – being receptive to feedback even if it is not what we particularly want to hear – and really hearing what others have to say.”

Which type are you?

Simon Western categorises four types of college leader in his 2018 report Hidden Leadership:

* The therapist focuses on people dynamics and relationships, and on motivating individuals and teams.

* The eco-leader looks to distribute leadership throughout the whole organisation. They disperse leadership from the centre to the edges, and pay attention to wider social, economic and technological changes.

* The messiah is a transformational and charismatic leader who emphasises setting visions and creating a loyal culture. They develop “cult-like” organisational cultures, delivering self-managed, dynamic and conformist corporate environments.

* The controller focuses on clarifying tasks and setting performance targets. Their core leadership aim is to maximise efficiency and improve productivity by tightly controlling resources, including human resources.


* Braun, G and Armstrong, D (2015) Using Systems Theory in Leadership, Further Education Trust for Leadership

* Collinson, M and Collinson, D (2005) Leader-led Relations in Context, Lancaster University Management School

* Ruiz-Valenzuela, J, Terrier, C and Van Effenterre, C (2017) Effectiveness of CEOs in the Public Sector: evidence from further education institutions, Centre for Vocational Education Research

* Western, S (2018) Hidden Leadership: exploring the assumptions that define further education leadership, Further Education Trust for Leadership


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