When Joss Kang and I started FE Constellations back in the summer, it was with a powerful desire to help FE’s changemakers move from good intentions to sustainable action.
Nice strapline, eh? Pretty sure it’s a hard relate for every changemaker out there. Me and Joss are pretty good at making change happen, but our history is as littered as anyone’s with good intentions that never got operationalised, good ideas that never saw the light of day.
Trying to change things in public service is never easy. A single politician with enough clout and a bee in their bonnet can do it in a stroke, but that has to be a lot of clout, even within national politics and governance. For the rest of us, including principals and senior policy makers, making change is like wading through treacle.
Making a sustainable change
Systems and culture both suck energy into maintaining the status quo. A single seedling of a good intention or idea has to take on a lot of fuel, to become sustainable change.
I’ve recently been involved in a group of ‘core thinkers’ around former Education and Training Foundation CEO David Russell’s ‘Self Improving FE’ project. With the support of ETF and Oxford Saïd Business School, David is running a year-long collaborative research project with the ambition of changing the FE system. It’s been joyful to spend time thinking with clever people about how to change the big stuff. Absolutely the same buzz as the twice-weekly #JoyFE Ideas Rooms, but with serious potestas in the room, alongside energising potentia. We need to leverage those two different types of power if we’re going to shift things.
David has interviewed more than 50 thinkers and leaders in further education, as well as international experts, who note both the incredible breadth of FE provision in this country, as well as the dizzying policy churn. Yet it was both affirming and somewhat overwhelming to hear early outcomes from these conversations. Highly visible amongst what concerns people most is trust, collectivism, human relations, (dis)comfort and vulnerability. All the big stuff, with a seriously clear commitment to social justice. Everything that I also think English FE is about.
Systems eat culture
We are famously told that culture eats strategy for breakfast, but if we’re going to play rock, paper, scissors with FE it’s surely clear by now that systems eat culture. Culture change won’t happen if we don’t also change systems at every level and that’s going to take a lot of collective energy. We’ve seen the pull of the old happen in post-pandemic ‘gobackery’, watching our trust, kindness and wellbeing dissipate under the onslaught of all the old systems. Wherever I try to take my thinking these days, it comes back to those three things. We need to change systems if we’re to be a place where trust and kindness flourish and where wellbeing is not outsourced to the latest raft of ‘experts’ but provides genuine opportunities for (radical) rest.
Join me next time for how fan-favourite The Crystal Maze can provide a helpful metaphor for reaching the activation point for systems and culture change.