The shape of leadership is changing in FE, although in some colleges it is changing full circle. Discuss!

Whilst it is an undisputable that Government(s) has made significant central changes to the sector over the years such as funding bodies, funding methodologies, performance measurement and qualifications; the actual shape and focus of each individual college has largely been left to local governors and appointed college senior leaders. So how does leadership in the sector look now at a local college level compared to 10 years ago, and from an organisational perspective what structure is likely to work best in future?

Well, I feel well placed to answer my own question! As a former college senior leader and with substantial ‘other’ external leadership experience, aided by the currency of visiting c. 40 colleges in recent months meeting with senior leaders I am getting a real feel for what is trending, and whether it is working!

10 years ago, virtually without exception colleges were led by Principals. These titles were commonly adjusted to ‘Principal & CEO’ albeit the role was by and large the domain of a leader who had followed a curriculum leadership pathway. Whilst the sector has always recognised gender without any notable bias, this was less so from an age perspective and Principals were certainly often 50 something, and older.

My recollection is that as the sector transitioned through the LSC we started to see change; a minority of colleges positioned themselves in a Group-like structure and we started to see (just) a few CEO’s appear (where multi-college sites existed) in a disaggregated role from Principal. Around about the same time we also saw LSIS ‘open the senior leadership door’ to the masses as literally tens of cohorts of aspiring principals flocked to pitch tents at Lancaster University and to continue the dissection of ‘leadership’ thereafter. The role of Principal was starting to open up, and not only did the age of the college’s most senior leader rapidly fall (in more than an isolated instance) but the requisite skills set for promotion also changed, with Finance and Resource VP’s / Directors commonly being invited to compete with curriculum leaders on what felt like a level playing field.

It has to be said that this period; c. 2000 to 2010 was also a golden period for performance and funding with stacks of colleges achieving the Holy Grail of OfSTED Grade 1 and even more generating significant cash surpluses and reinvesting them in the college infrastructure. Happy Days indeed! Perhaps most notable, senior recruitment exercises were generally closed to those already in the sector.

Warp forward to 2015 and take an FE snapshot. Performance (as measured by OfSTED) is generally falling backwards (at pace), Grade 1 colleges are being labelled as Grade 2 (or worse!) and many Grade 2 colleges are now being told to improve, at a time when there is simply little to no spare funding and with both the requisite quality and quantity of deliverables increasing year on year. The response of an increasing number of colleges has been to focus on future-proofing and diversification and for this a corporate structure, perhaps led by a leader with wider corporate and organisational experience is identified as the key to successful change. Is this a business-savvy strategy, is it a gamble, or is it blind panic? Whatever the answer, there is a clear split of direction with some colleges going ‘corporate’ and others following a more traditional pathway as all Governing Bodies wrestle with how to save money, increase productivity (efficiency!) and deliver a challenging agenda.

A key question, is this the right time to change tried and trusted leadership models? Is this the dawn of the super leader, and can we really re-engineer colleges and transit to something new, without truly understanding what ‘new’ looks and feels like, for there is no blueprint detailing what a college that is fit-for-purpose for the ‘new world’ actually looks like!

Today, we have an increasing number (albeit still a minority), and not just limited to the larger jugonaughts of FE, of colleges presenting themselves as a Corporate Group, albeit statute may likely always ensure that the college is Top Co, notwithstanding most colleges now have Sub Co’s for employer-based delivery, and various aspects of commercial trading whilst increasingly more are looking at staffing-related Sub-Co’s and as a vehicle for shared services. Some colleges have established an international education company although the college must generally provide a parent guarantee for ‘overseas operations’ whilst others look to partition HE, 14-16, Multi-Academy Trusts and UTC’s and any emerging Joint Ventures. Exciting times indeed – but I highlight that the majority of colleges are delivering (or trying to deliver) this broad agenda in traditional format. Indeed, I have visited 3 colleges in the last month that are very carefully dismantling the corporate dream and retraining their educational eye on the local community and in essence, going back to basics. In each example, Principals are extremely keen to be called ‘Principals!’

Interestingly (and by way of illustration of FE-organisational evolution) I joined a medium-sized college 10 years ago that went on to become a large college, as an early ‘super director’ of Corporate Resources, combining 3 functions that previously had 3 directors. 2 years later my Director-title changed to Vice Principal, 2 years later I was made a Senior Post Holder and as I left the college last summer my old job was changing again to a new (and trending) COO post. I have to be honest, whilst the scale and breadth of my role and responsibility did increase in manageable increments year on year, fundamentally through the 3 job titles the role never really changed – because FE hasn’t really changed! Of real interest the salary (which remained in line with sector norms) has doubled in 10 years, and it felt well remunerated in the beginning! This is quite in-keeping with senior leader’ salary growth – that contrasts significantly with much slower salary progression for lecturing and support staff – and must be considered as part of any ROI on corporate evolution!

Cost-wise, I must highlight that new structures are expensive so the timing of this change is interesting. Speculate to accumulate? Notwithstanding, we are seeing more of the larger colleges and some of the colleges that would like to be large recruiting CEOs, who in turn are supported by COOs. Some of these posts are being filled by senior leaders from other sectors, perhaps the private sector or perhaps other aspects of the public sector, and I wonder whether this is because our sector has failed to equip our own for the future or whether the agenda has some how become so complex that it needs more widely skilled people? I hold my tongue in my cheek as I write the last sentence – but there has to be a driver to lever in the perceived change required. Interestingly, the age range of senior leaders has perhaps never been so broad with a number of colleges now led by people under 40 yrs with some also being led by people who have tipped over what is widely regarded as normal retirement age, with a good spread of everything in between. As ‘Captain Cliché’ said, “if you are good enough you are old enough”, whilst at the same time “there is no substitute for experience!”

So what is leading the FE sector to turn outwards and seek a new type of leader? Well, each Chair of Governors may see it differently but from my perspective I think it is a lack of confidence in proven FE people to make the significant changes perceived by some as required to shape FE for the future, so change management and business transition and transformation are without doubt some of the key labels and outcomes being tagged to these new roles. In increasing instances these posts are splitting long-established responsibilities between a subordinate Principal post reporting to a CEO post, but to be considered a success the corporate overhead attached needs to generate a ROI in the same way that any other investment should. With some CEO’s now earning some way more than the UK Prime Minister, and as much as some HEI leaders the financial stakes are truly as high as ever and thus a significant ROI should be the key measure of success and the key outcome, otherwise what is the point?

Is there a summary to what remains to be seen? Well, corporate structures do look and feel the right way forward, they seek to break the agenda down and to apply private sector learning and business acumen to a challenging problem. Those CEO’s and COO’s that I have met are also clearly experienced professionals who bring an added dimension and a different perspective. On the flipside, traditional colleges led by FE-qualified senior leaders have been here before, seen it and done it. This economical climate may be a blip in the wider history of FE and thus the changes being orchestrated by some may yet prove to be over-engineered and unnecessary. Of course, we must all wait and see, and ultimately, what is in a job title! The correct structure for any organisation is the one that gets the job done at an affordable price. Governors can look forward to having the final say on this one!

Ian Sackree FCCA is the Chief Operating Officer at Protocol. Ian joined Protocol in September 2014 having previously spent 10 years as Vice Principal and Deputy CEO in a hi-performing large GFE College.

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