A “bums on seats” mentality in FE can result in more focus on spreadsheets than on human relationships, writes Jason Boucher
Although I have been a teacher of sorts for 19 years, I have only been in FE since 2016. What a journey it has been.
A military man beforehand, I bring a particular perspective to the meaning of teamwork and leadership.
From my experience of numerous senior leadership teams (SLTs) in FE, they could learn quite a bit from the Royal Air Force.
When you step into a leadership role in colleges, the institution will generally expect a level 3 or even a level 5 management qualification, plus a certain level of experience. However, theory is only one side of the very complicated skill of leadership. The job requires a deep emotional intelligence.
A major issue is that people are not assets to be used and then thrown away. Yet I have seen many college staff burn out because of the demands placed on them.
In my first year in FE, I had 80 level 1 students, 40 level 2 students, and a class of 20 level 3 students. Many reading this will recognise the huge academic load alone for a teacher with that many students.
It gets harder when you include all of the other responsibilities expected of a lecturer, such as course admin, discipline, pastoral work and helping with employability skills and work experience.
I found it incredibly hard and sometimes in the past I had little support. If I had done all of the above, I would not have made it away from my desk.
One of the major pressures on me was the “bums on seats” mentality, which in some colleges can seem to matter more to management than anything else. In some colleges, I have felt I am just a money generator for my institution.
As long as my dots kept moving in the right direction across the management Excel spreadsheet, they were happy – but there was too little interest in the personal costs to staff.
There was too little interest in the personal costs to staff
In short, the best SLTs care more about their staff.
In the Army at Sandhurst, they foster the concept of servant leadership. Their philosophy is: how can you lead your men if you have not learnt how best to serve your men? The best SLTs take this approach.
In the RAF, the officers had to be accustomed to dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity. This made us flexible and adaptable to circumstances and open-minded in dealing with the reality of situations.
The best SLTs make an effort to understand their staff and be flexible and adaptable enough to see each of them as different. One size does not fit all.
But there remains a system-wide problem in FE. With tighter government accountability measures, Ofsted and funding pressures, a “project manager” type mentality has sprung up, with a business-focused drive for performance outcomes – what you might call managerialism.
It is important for a college to be financially stable, and under these pressures it must be really difficult to be a college principal right now.
It must be really difficult to be a college principal right now
But we risk losing the human elements of our work at times. The result can be a loss of trust among staff in an SLT, and a feeling that they are not trusted in turn.
We could counter this with leadership qualifications that are a package of developing people skills. This could include much more training in emotional intelligence, motivation, wellbeing and how to get the very best out of people.
There are also great books out there such as Fish! by Stephen Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen, which look at institutional morale.
This book shows us that, in the best places to work, bosses create a person-focused culture built on empowerment and trust.
Management is about how to move dots. But leadership empowers and inspires.