Sunday, 26 October 2014

Every little helps

Recently I wrote in the TES that Principals of FE Colleges were more effective, better suited to FE than those ‘fast-tracked from industry’. I stand by that, utterly, FE should be run by those who, if you sliced them open would have “FE” running through them, like Blackpool rock. That doesn’t mean we can’t ‘borrow’ ideas or copy their practice, if it both suits and benefits FE.

In the Guardian recently, the new boss of Tesco’s, David Lewis said he is sending thousands of head office staff, including himself and his senior executives, on to the shop floor as part of a campaign designed to win over disgruntled customers.

Just as Tesco is losing shoppers to discount rivals Aldi and Lidl as well as cheaper mainstream rivals such as Asda, FE needs to not lose prospective learners to UTC’s, and other threats. Lewis also unearthed a £250m hole in profits expected for the first six months of the year.

FE hasn’t inflated its figures but it is in trouble. As Nick Linford writes funding cuts of up to 35% to date, and 16-18 providers are now facing a rate reduction that in its first year is specifically targeting 18-year-olds. This leads to bigger classes, fewer staff and a narrow curriculum offer with increasing numbers of disadvantaged learners.

In an over-stretched, over-supplied market, those who underperform are in grave danger of vanishing as other providers wait to take up the disaffected. This is a business plan with a bumpy ending.

So, we have two large, successful organisations; FE and Tesco, both suffering from a reduction in finances (us income and them, profit) and seemingly a surfeit of management staff who, in some cases, lack the experience of ‘regular customer contact’.

In the same article, Kantar Retail analyst Bryan Roberts, who makes regular visits to Tesco supermarkets around the country, argues … “Store managers need to get out of their ivory towers and start walking the shop floor,” he says. “From some of the stores I’ve been to in the last six months you get the impression that the managers are not getting their hands dirty enough.”

We don’t have the financial clout or buying power of Tesco, but we can adopt their best ideas; senior management on the ‘shop floor’, engaging with the staff and students in real environments, not the artificial & stage-managed events so prevalent in many colleges, is one of their best and we should utilise it.

Senior Management Teams have a lot to do, I know that, but if Lewis and his 4000 Head Office Staff can do it, we can too.

This is now a fight for our very survival. The colleges that succeed, flourish, retain current customers, gain new ones, get outstanding results for the learners, and frankly, are still open in two years’ time, will be the ones where SMT has got down on the shop floor, rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty.
Lewis and the new finance director, Alan Stewart, will be among those spending alternate Thursdays and Fridays in stores for the next three months. If they feel this is time well spent, shouldn’t we?

Many already do; they are completely involved in the life of their college and it’s no coincidence that their colleges are vibrant, lively, profitable places. This isn’t a ‘Secret Shopper’ style Lesson Observation Spying mission, but a way, the only way I think, of knowing what’s really going on and putting things right, before they fester into fatal issues.

FE is fabulous, it is the beating heart of our future generations success and happiness; that’s much more important to me than the fate of a few tins of beans, but if beans are worth such focussed attention, then so are our staff and learners.



Saturday, 18 October 2014

Principals or Captains of Industry?

To succeed in running an FE college, business leaders must recognise their shortcomings
Historically, further education principals were the slightly intimidating grandfathers of education. They had earned scars and respect as lecturers before climbing the management ladder. Their experience enabled them to act in the best interests of the college. They knew every student, every member of staff and understood the challenges faced by each.

Modern FE principals do not necessarily fit this mould. They are just as likely to have been brought in from industry as from the ranks of teaching staff. This presents two problems.

The first issue is contextual knowledge. The traditional principal started as a lecturer, amassing years of knowledge and experience before rising through the ranks to the highest office, learning every aspect of the FE curriculum and every policy that shaped it. They were experts.

Leaders parachuted in from non-education sectors cannot hope to have a similar grasp of the decisions they will be making. Successive governments have relentlessly bullied FE into meeting their latest whims with ever-decreasing resources, but replacing principals with business people is not the answer. Staff need to respect their leaders, to have faith in their judgement and know that essential sector knowledge guides their decisions.

The second issue is that the head of an FE college has to put education first. This used to be the case. Funding cuts forced principals to adapt, to learn or hire in new skills and explore new, vocationally focused opportunities for learning, as well as economic opportunities for income. But education was still at the core. The same cannot be said for some of the principals being hired in colleges today.

A different breed

New leaders are now more likely to be business leaders or chief executives than owners of leather-patched jackets and PhDs. They have knowledge of “just-in-time” production schedules, sharp negotiation skills, economic efficiency and manufacturing intelligence. But they don’t have much of a clue about education beyond their own experience of it. They will be less likely to make education-first decisions, especially at crunch moments.

Of course, FE is not alone in this; the leadership evolution has happened in all sectors of education. But it seems to be more pronounced in our sector, where the lack of educational experience is more readily accepted.

I am not advocating banishing this new brand of principal. But they do need to understand the concerns their presence creates. Here is a selection of potential problems:
  • Respect: if the world’s greatest tractor driver was put in charge of the Bank of England, would we, as bank employees, respect our new leader’s choices?
  • Change management: New leaders bring new ideas. FE traditionally copes well with change. But has that been because of the educational experience of our principals and the breadth of their talent?
  • Market knowledge: FE is unique – it requires a vast range of skills to lead a college. Removing the need to have education as part of that skill set negates its importance.
  • Business: new revenue streams are essential to support education, but it is the business of education, not the business of business, that is paramount.

Key questions

These problems are not insurmountable. They simply require a would-be principal to be more considered about accepting an FE leadership role and to understand what is required of them. This starts at application. A potential college leader should ask themselves five key questions below before applying for a role:
  1. What are the basic goals of the college?
  2. What is the strategy for achieving these goals?
  3. What are the fundamental issues facing the college?
  4. What is its culture?
  5. Is the college organised in a way that supports its aims?
Prospective principals should ask themselves if they would honestly be able to understand the answers to these questions. If they feel they could, they need to communicate that understanding to the college immediately and be willing to show how the answers will be interpreted.

Asking for help and opinions from staff and providing opportunities for those staff to influence key decisions is essential if principals from the business sector hope to succeed. We can accept they don’t have contextual knowledge if they make efforts to use the know-how that already exists on staff.

Most of all, would-be leaders must understand that colleges are not manufacturers and that commercial success does not equal educational expertise. Many fall into this trap and it is a sure-fire way to dismantle everything that FE stands for.

Published in TES 17th October 2014