From education to employment

Skills Are Not Enough

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

In this article, Chris discusses how a skilled workforce isn’t enough to produce high quality provision for students. A collaborative culture is also necessary and for that leadership is essential!

If you’re interested in Further Education and haven’t yet come across David Russell’s Self-Improving System Project, it’s time to catch yourself on!

A recent blog, just one of a thought-provoking series, collated views he’d gathered from sector leaders on the topic of collectivism. Many of his interviewees felt that a defining characteristic of a self-improving system would be that it adopted collective solutions to collective problems. What problems? you might ask. Well, according to those David spoke with, principally four: recruitment, competition, workforce development and branding.

There’s perhaps nothing extraordinary about this list until, that is, you remind yourself of the context: a self-improving FE system. Then it begins to look a bit odd. It’s not immediately clear how branding could improve the quality of the FE system and competition might, at least in some circumstances, assist not impede it.

Recruitment and workforce development

Recruitment and workforce development look more probable because of course the quality of students’ education depends directly upon the quality of teaching they get. But a collective approach? You can see how this might work in regard to recruitment. The current DfE campaign is designed to do just this – encourage people who hadn’t thought of it to consider a career in FE:

Skills. Experience. Knowledge. You’ve got them. Share them.

If you have real-world industry experience, you already have what it takes to teach in further education (FE). Plus, you don’t always need teaching experience or an academic degree to get started.

This move on recruitment certainly points up the need for workforce development, doesn’t it? You don’t need to know much or indeed anything about teaching; you just need to have worked in industry. In the real-world which is just a way of saying industry louder.

Now it’s clearly possible, to some extent at least, to organise workforce development collectively. Teacher training qualifications might be so regarded, after all. But back to that all-important context again: a collective approach to developing a workforce to deliver top quality education?

For that possibility to be unproblematic it would have to be the case that there exists a set of teaching skills which apply to everything from hair and beauty to Eng. Lit. and that a workforce thus prepared could deliver first-rate education without leadership and management.

What would Erik ten Hag, Manchester United Manager, make of that?

I wonder what Erik ten Hag, Manchester United Manager, would make of that? He inherited a team with two of the most prodigiously skilled players of their generation. And he fired them. The results improved.

ten Hag’s action makes no sense at all if individual footballing skills were the guarantee of a team’s success. What it demonstrates is two things: excellence is not achievable by individual skills alone and individual skills are worth sacrificing if something more important can be saved thereby.

I would suggest it’s no different in FE

Assembling a collection of highly-skilled teachers will not on its own be enough to produce excellent education for students. That only happens when these individuals work together as a team: sharing a common goal, sharing their expertise, experimenting, sharing their mistakes, and learning together.

Excellence only flourishes if the culture is right

In other words, excellence only flourishes if the culture is right and creating the right culture is what leadership is all about: producing an environment in which what staff routinely think and what they routinely do aligns with the mission.

So there may after all be some utility in the notion of a collective approach to workforce development but it needs qualifying in two important ways. First there’s the matter of scale: it doesn’t happen at the level of the individual or the nation; it happens in teams. And secondly, being highly skilled is always a necessary condition for high quality but it’s never sufficient. High quality leadership is essential to nurture and sustain top quality.

Chris Thomson
By Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

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