Why college leaders must learn to embrace failure

In the current climate, the pressure for college leaders is always there, writes Stephen Exley

College leaders need to embrace failure, writes Stephen Exley

“A man of genius makes no mistakes,” writes James Joyce in Ulysses. “His errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery.”

In the context of running a college – a high-pressure job with the livelihoods of hundreds of staff, the prospects of thousands of students and millions of pounds of funding in your hands – this quote feels somewhat frivolous. But the meaning behind it – that everyone makes mistakes, but only the most successful fully learn from them – is as relevant in FE as anywhere. This is a sector where, with a flurry of interventions and inspections being conducted by the FE commissioner and Ofsted respectively at any one time, it increasingly feels like once you’ve made it to the top job, it’s one strike and you’re out.


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Absence of ministers

The topic was touched upon in a thought-provoking yet challenging session on “balancing oversight, support and intervention” at the Association of Colleges’ Annual Conference.

This year’s conference had a distinctly different atmosphere to previous years. The enforced absence of ministers made for fewer headlines for us journalists, but allowed for a refreshingly reflective tone in the debates and keynotes. The long-awaited increase in college funding announced this summer, coupled with the promise of more investment to come from each of the main political parties, also served to relieve the tension that has been building in recent times.

But the pressure for college leaders is always there. The point was made most forcibly in the session by Andrew Cropley, who hit out at Ofsted for hanging like a “sword of Damocles” over colleges in intervention and giving a “publicly-pronounced verdict of a previous regime” with little value – and causing unnecessary stress for the remaining staff.

Alun Francis, who has also overseen a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of Oldham College in the last few years, spoke eloquently about the high-stakes nature of running a college, with fine margins separating success from disaster.

But the contribution which my mind has kept returning to ever since was by Kate Webb, group principal and CEO of the Windsor Forest Colleges Group, when she spoke of the dangers of “the fetishizing of failure”.

“Every college is on a spectrum, all of us,” she told the audience. “None of us are totally great, none of us are completely outstanding. We’re all on a spectrum. And every day, in every single one of our colleges, something alarming happens. Sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s big, but it’s always alarming.”

“We are living in a system where,” she continued, “at the moment I think there is increasing threat, risk and harm. Failure stars to feel catastrophic.”

Make no mistake: Garry Phillips may not have been mentioned by name in the session, but memories of his death just over a year ago gave a poignant backdrop to the discussion.

There is another dangerous side effect of this pressure cooker environment, Webb explained: that the threat of failure becomes a driver of bad behaviour – and even drives this behaviour underground.

“We need to make sure that failure doesn’t become a stigma,” she added. “We have to make sure we don’t fetishise failure, that we  don’t share schadenfreude for failure, because we have to learn from our failures, because we are better than that as a sector, I believe.”

We shouldn’t for a second give those who make mistakes an easy ride – not least when the consequences for employees and learners can he profound. But, as David Hughes has previously argued, they don’t necessarily deserve to be hounded out of the sector.

There are plenty of proponents in teaching circles of teaching students how to fail well. Maybe it’s time we allowed those who lead our colleges the same right. We must ensure that, as Webb put it, “failure is part of our success”. Joyce would undoubtedly be in full agreement.

Stephen Exley is FE editor at Tes

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen is TES' Further Education Editor. He has worked at TES since 2010, and was previously the education correspondent at the Cambridge News. He was the winner of the award for Outstanding National Education Journalism at the CIPR Education Journalism Awards in 2015 and 2013.