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Reflections on Strategic Leadership 2:leadership of learning & skills the tale of the 3-legged stool

02 September 2013

Education is field of endeavour that must surely rank as high as any when it comes to the social, moral and spiritual development of humankind. I’m proud that my first career was in education, largely in further education. I’m still very much involved in it - remaining one of the FE system’s most passionate champions and an advocate of the power of technical and vocational education as a means for social mobility. My role now is one of support and influence as opposed to daily management as an FE College Principal. These days I can be both ‘critical friend and ‘friendly critic’, using the perspective gained from working in the private and voluntary sectors over the last 13 years to scrutinise the FE system from a different standpoint, and deploying my understanding of it to explain and promote its huge (and often unnoticed and under reported) successes and benefits.

The FE system in England is this year celebrating its 20th anniversary since freedom from local authority control was engineered by a Tory government in the immediate post Thatcher years - an early example of the ‘laissez faire’ conservatism I highlighted in my last blog. So this is a good time to take a look at how the ‘leadership of learning’ in the FE sector could move forward to ensure that over the next 20 years it continues to flourish.

I have been delighted therefore over the last few months to be asked address this topic by the current leaders of FE. A number of key themes have emerged from my recent speeches to the Gazelle Colleges Group, the 157 Group, and the Principals Professional Council and I have grouped these together under the heading of the ‘tale of the three legged stool and the three cornered hat’. In this blog, I shall deal with the three legs or ‘points’ of the stool - perception, perspective and possibility – and in my subsequent blog, I shall pick up on the three corners or ‘edges’ of my hat - enlightenment, entanglement and engagement.

The FE system has an image problem - as far as the media, parents, most teachers, many politicians, and much of business is concerned. Individual FE colleges in their communities do not necessarily suffer from this as much as the overall collective of FE colleges. Numerous laudable attempts have been made over the last two decades to face this out (some of which I have myself been directly involved in!). The problem has so far proved intractable. It is however not insolvable - provided that, in the words of Frank McLoughlin, Chair of the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning - the principal issue ‘What is the question to which FE is the answer?’ is addressed. In my view, by concentrating on its primary task - the provision of the country’s ‘cadre’ of technicians and vocational specialists and vigorously promoting this - the FE system’s distinctive purpose, singular priorities, and unique place in the educational firmament would be more sharply delineated, communicated and recognized. The current government has FE on its horizon – which should help - and as I have argued elsewhere in my blogs, it is to be hoped that if there is a change in government in 2015, current actions with regard to the perceived status and importance of the FE system will be maintained and accelerated.

FE leaders, lecturers and governors are too introspective – seemingly unable, too frequently, to shift their line of sight above or outside their own FE colleges and to look at themselves through the eyes of the local community, businesses and the needs of local and global labour markets.

One recently retired FE college principal, founding member of the Gazelle Colleges, and as it happens one of my ex colleagues, Fintan Donohue, drew attention to this issue when he told me recently that he knew things had to change radically in FE when he realized that if his college was threatened with closure no one would come out on to the streets to protest that it should survive - compare that to the outcry in communities across the land about closures to local library services in the wake of council budgetary cuts.

The time is right for FE leaders to stop sitting at the back of the classroom with their hands up, perorating to all who will listen with chants of ‘what about us?’ every time FE fails to get noticed, defending their innate ‘raison d’être’ as if their whole life depended on it. My advice to FE leaders is to earn the respect of others so that they do your advocacy for you – and because they genuinely believe the value of what you do. On this score, I am heartened that over the summer the leaders of the Association of Colleges, the 157 Group and Gazelle Colleges Group have got together to agree a way forward on this issue and are working with the CBI and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to promote the value of technical and vocational education and the important role the FE colleges play in this.

FE college leaders have an excellent track record of responding to possibilities placed in their path by government. As one of FE’s ‘greats’ Dame Ruth Silver famously claimed, FE is the ‘adaptive layer ‘ of the educational system, the chameleon always ready over the last 20 years to take on what is required of it by the ever changing funding regimes and myriad policy imperatives.

FE leaders should therefore use the momentum of change brought about by the Coalition government, together with the Opposition’s keen interest in FE, to seize the initiative, to get on the front foot and to demonstrate a lead – particularly in the area of leadership of locality as featured in my last blog.

FE Colleges are the natural allies of the LEPs, they are forerunners of the localism in action that the current government promulgates and LEPs have much to learn from them. It’s not just about FE involvement at LEP Board level - as valuable as this is – it’s about the boards of the LEPs and the FE Corporations - which both comprise key local business people – getting together and working effectively on behalf of the local community. As a LEP Chair who understands and believes in the work of FE, my hope is that what we are doing in this respect in the SE Midlands is replicated across the 39 LEPs. I believe the possibilities for co-creation of projects and activities that will bring real benefit to the locality- and increase the status and standing of FE - will quickly ensue.