FE Leadership: where to now?

Blog written by Dr Rob Smith, Reader in Education at CSPACE, @R0b5m1th Rob Smith

The role of leadership in FE has changed. The current round of Area Reviews are a testimony to that. Under incorporation, the colleges as freestanding institutions with the power to set their own contractual conditions for staff and control over their budgets developed a distinctive version of leadership that matched the assertive new profile of the sector. Not everyone bought into this (mercifully), but Roger Ward – the then chief executive of the College Employers Forum (forerunner of the AoC) seemed to set the tone. This was in keeping with the market ideology that underpinned the incorporation experiment. The FE (quasi) market was designed to be a mechanism that would lead to an improvement in standards. This is what we now call a neoliberal approach to organising FE.

This neoliberal approach was underpinned by a vision. Colleges were freed from the shackles of the Local Authority. They were free to be run on business lines because the perception was that public sector organisations were inefficient, uneconomical and ineffective. They were expected to develop in commercially-minded ways. There was a full expectation that the proportion of college budgets coming from commercial and entrepreneurial activities would increase and the proportion of college budgets coming from government funding would decrease. The aim was a sector of colleges that were virtually autonomous: purveyors of courses to the public and to employers with an ever-reducing dependence on public (government) funding. This vision has spectacularly failed to materialise.

In those terms, it’s fair to say that incorporation has failed. After all, what else do the Area Reviews signal if not that the college as a delivery unit for FE is no longer relevant? Today, more than ever, FE is being viewed by government in sectoral terms. The significance of individual colleges has been absorbed within that wider overview.

That said, the failure of incorporation is rooted as much in the almost impossible funding environment for FE that has emerged due to austerity as it is in the failure of commercial and entrepreneurial cultures two flower and produce autonomous colleges. The Area reviews are part of the machinery of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The present government believes FE is inefficient and the Area Reviews focus on this idea rather than taking the purpose of FE as a central theme.

So what is the current purpose of FE leadership?

From some perspectives, there is some mileage in viewing the leadership style of the 1990s as being part of a more general crisis of authority in our country. In the current conditions, it’s unsurprising that the role has undergone fundamental changes. Because of budgetary constraints leadership in FE has moved away from focusing on teaching and learning. It’s now much more likely to be about the proficient management of performance data. Because as everyone in the sector knows, the most important thing in colleges is to ensure of that the data is good. In some cases, that is irrespective of the reality as it is experienced by teachers and students.

So in the space of 20 years, we have shifted from a model of principalship as the leadership of a competitive, self-interested organisation looking to expand and keen to pursue business opportunities (although oddly, there are continuing echoes in the current policy of academisation). From that we have moved to a role primarily focused on balancing books and overseeing the production of a simulated version of college activities crafted to yield maximum funding returns and to satisfy OFSTED’s inspection regime.

Neither version is what we really need.

Discuss the future of FE Leadership at the Reimagining FE Conference

If you would like to be part of envisioning a new role for FE leaders, come to our collaborative conference Reimagining Further Education on 29 June 2016 at Birmingham City University’s Central Campus. Our unique discussion format is designed to take a hard look at current challenges facing FE and then together seek creative ways forward. There are 6 thematic strands to the day and one is dedicated to Leadership in FE. I hope to see you there.

Follow our hashtag at #ReimagineFE

To read the original blog post go to: https://drrobsmith1.wordpress.com/2016/05/16/fe-leadership-where-to-now/

Want to discuss this issue more? Visit http://www.bcu.ac.uk/news-events/calendar/reimagining-further-education to join us on 29 Jun 2016 (9:00am – 4:00pm) for the Reimagining Further Education conference.

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