Amid struggling leadership and management, two FE colleges shine

New research points to an education-wide issue with quality of leadership and management, but some FE providers stand out, say Niamh O Regan and Anthony Painter

New research points to an education-wide issue with quality of leadership and management, but some FE providers stand out, say Niamh O Regan and Anthony Painter

21 Nov 2023, 5:00

There is no doubt that colleges up and down the country strive to provide a high quality and effective education that supports people to achieve their ambitions and their potential. While many of the ingredients that contribute to that service are obvious and much-debated – staffing, facilities, curriculum – the importance of leadership and management shouldn’t be understated.

The past few years have challenged and stretched leadership and management in the education sector. Adjusting to a completely different teaching style during the pandemic, and navigating ever tighter budgets has required ever stronger and more agile leadership and management, for both student education outcomes and for staff wellbeing. Yet despite the importance of the topic, further education colleges are conspicuously absent from leadership and management research.

That’s something we’ve been trying to address over the past few months. We have been exploring how people across the whole education sector rate the performance of management and leadership in their institutions, what their strengths and weaknesses are on those dimensions, and how best to tackle the inevitable pinch points.

Under strain

Leaders and managers set the culture of an organisation, make the plans for the future, and strongly influence the morale of their colleagues. We surveyed 455 education leaders, a mixture across junior, middle and senior management.

While overall our findings hold promise, there is a concerning tail of underperformance. The majority of those surveyed think that the senior leadership in their organisation is effective, but almost one in three said it was ineffective. Leaders and managers see the motivation and morale of their workforce as important for organisational success, but a little over a quarter feel their senior leadership is poor at motivating staff – a figure that rises significantly to one in three (35%) among FE colleges. Concerted effort is being made to improve, but obstacles remain including recruitment and retention of staff. Almost half of leaders and managers felt that their organisation didn’t perform well at attracting talent. 

Doing it well

Despite the difficulties that are experienced by a significant minority of leaders and managers, there is evidently a lot of good practice, and examples from which struggling institutions can learn. Two FE colleges – Oldham College and Exeter College – were flagged  for their best practice.

Both colleges have developed a strategic plan, with heavy staff input which helps ensure staff buy into the college’s vision. Both have also worked to develop their relationships with the wider community, including local employers.

Other elements for their success are similar in theme, but slightly different in execution. Oldham College has displayed continuous improvement, a core element of which involves staff development. The best-run colleges know that investing in staff means investing in the institution’s future. Ensuring leadership and management is baked into all continuing professional development programmes helps to build the leaders of the future. Acknowledging the importance of retaining staff, they have developed progression pathways across the college, particularly in areas where it might normally be more limited.

Exeter College arguably shows the next step in the leadership improvement journey, achieving and maintaining excellence.  Developing future leaders is a focus in Exeter, and this is done by involving more junior members of staff in developing and presenting strategic leadership plans. Staff are given the autonomy and space to manage, acknowledging that different departments will have different priorities, even while maintaining college-wide standards.

These case studies show that only by elevating skilled management to become a central plank of future education policy will we support an already strained FE system to deliver the success that students and teachers deserve.

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