Effective leaders, either individually or collectively, can see beyond the particular, discerning patterns in the chaos around us. Great leaders can transcend the moment they’re in and see new ways forward that are at once exciting and achievable. I think these two statements are true; they are emphatically not the only essential qualities of a successful leader, but from my experience and study they are rare and need to be cultivated and given space to grow. They are also not confined to the top tier of organisations. Insight can come from the newest bright-eyed recruit, just as it can come from a seasoned practitioner.

This is about more than the trite phrase ‘thinking outside the box,’ which I have never really understood. Perhaps it means to understand and produce a new perspective and way of thinking by first stepping out of the boxes that we put ourselves in. Generating new perspectives and ways of thinking about over-familiar problems, raising our gaze above the day to day, disinterring unconscious assumptions, testing and exploring new concepts from outside our Sector are all aspects of leading thinking. This is at the core of the work of the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL). By commissioning research and thinking by FE practitioners, leaders, academics, representative bodies and by teaming up with leading think tanks outside the FE Sector, FETL aims to create a legacy of a body of knowledge that strengthens FE and skills.

The work commissioned and supported by FETL is sometimes oblique and reflective, as in the case of a set of seminars that considered how psychoanalysis and systems leadership thinking could contribute to thinking in FE and skills. The outcome of the seminar was a fascinating pamphlet that, like all FETL publications is available here. The work can alternatively be aimed at understanding the consequences, beyond the immediate, of emerging policy, as was the case with the work led by Professor Ewart Keep of SKOPE at Oxford University, with the Association of Colleges, on the implications of devolution and localism. The same intent to intent to see further than the immediate effects of individual polices applies to work by the Social Market Foundation with FETL which was published last week, looking at 5 to 10 year scenarios for FE in the context of market forces, changes in other educational sectors and broader government policy. The work can look at detailed issues more deeply or be expansive in looking forward. An example of the former is analysis carried out by Dr Steve Lambert, thorough the provision of a FETL fellowship, assessing thinking on leveraged leadership in relation to its possible application to FE.

The epitome of the latter is the work with the RSA on possibility thinking which invited leading thinkers in education and beyond to posit a series of ‘what if’ questions and then sought responses to leaders within FE. This work, together with the emerging library of FETL publications, is generating a series of what the President of FETL, Dame Ruth Silver, has called ‘constructive conversations’ about the future of our Sector.

I feel privileged to be able to contribute to these conversations as the first FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills at University College London, Institute of Education. As well facilitating debate and reflection, my own work is currently focusing upon the distinctive role of FE. Specifically, I am looking at how providers in FE define purpose and values as a means of developing longer term strategies. In this work I will be drawing upon thinking about leadership in complex systems beyond FE, interviews within FE and key pieces FETL work like the Going Places report with the Skills Commission on innovation in FE and Skills, and Ethics in FE and Skills by Dr Carole Azumah at Hull University.

As an important sub-set of this main piece of work, I am also concerned to contribute to thinking around higher technical and professional education which it seems to me could be a defining mission for many, but not all FE providers. It will not be a surprise to many of you that the debates that I find within academia in this area are dominated by a predominantly theoretical perspective and with an amount of embedded institutional self-preservation. Being now located in the academic world, I have the opportunity to challenge the pre-conceived notions of some of my colleagues, whilst at the same time encouraging a constructive conversation between academics, policymakers and most critically FE leaders and practitioners.

Ensuring the involvement of the last of these groups is most important. In anticipation of BREXIT there is a pressing need for improved productivity, but also a need for greater social fairness and inclusion. We need also to enable an ageing population to more at ease with themselves and each other. FE has a leading role to play in all these areas and more, but if it is to be one that is proactive and properly forward-looking we must have our own intellectual capital. This capital can be built with others, but only with FE being an active and equal partner and not simply a respondent. In this way FE is more likely to determine elements of its own future rather than perennially being done to.

FETL’s leadership of thinking and its intended legacy of a body of knowledge that strengthens FE and Skills are integral to a self-determining future for FE and skills. I hope in the months ahead to involve as many of you as possible in this work through a series of seminars and discussions.

Martin Doel, FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills, University College London, Institute of Education.

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