Leading skills: Exploring leadership in Further Education colleges

A recent review by the Behavioural Insights Team for the Government found compelling evidence that effective public services leaders are associated with improved organisation performance, productivity and employee well-being.

We are often made aware of this argument in relation to headteachers in schools. Much less, do politicians or policymakers devote attention to leadership in further education.

However, research shows that good leaders in FE drive improvements in teaching standards and student outcomes. Compared to studying in a college led by a low performing leader, a successful principal can improve the likelihood of a student achieving a Level 2 qualification by 15.9 percentage points and a Level 3 by 14.1 percentage points.

Why FE leadership matters now more than ever

The need to think about this issue is pressing for several reasons:

1. The Future of Education

First, ‘what’ principals are leading is changing. Funding reductions are putting pressures on colleges’ finances. Spending per capita has been on a steep downward trajectory during the 2000s in FE colleges. Eight in ten senior leaders (82%) cite funding / budget constraints as the main difficulty of working in FE.

Area Reviews are leading to larger institutions on average. Colleges must now compete with schools, other providers and universities for learners.

Looking to the next few years and beyond, the institution of the college is likely to be impacted profoundly by other forces. The Adult Education Budget (worth £1.5bn) is being devolved – meaning that colleges can become an integral part of the local skills system and potentially get involved in ‘market making’.

New technologies could do even more to disrupt traditional patterns of learning. Colleges will have the opportunity to reach new groups of learners. But, other providers from outside the locality will also be able to compete for these learners, including potentially larger institutions from other sectors.

2. Increased pressure to improve technical education

Second, is the broader social and economic context of post-Brexit. As immigration falls, we will have to rely much more on developing homegrown talent among the lower skilled. Central to improving the UK’s poor productivity is a much stronger core of technical skills (we currently languish 16th among OECD countries on technical skills). We stand little chance of addressing the huge regional economic imbalances without effective local colleges.

3. FE's role in overcoming social deprivation

Third, the report draws attention to the demographics of learners in FE. Further education must be recognised as a primary channel for social mobility.

While this will be familiar to those who work in the sector, there is minimal discussion in wider policy debate. This contrasts markedly with the focus on participation in higher education and access and attainment of those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

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Of the 2.2 million adult learners participating in further education in 2017/18: 16% had a learning difficulty or disability, and 22% were from an ethnic minority background. Looking at those aged 16 to 18 in 2010, three in five (58%) of pupils from poorer families (most deprived quintile) attended a further education or sixth form college as opposed to four in ten (41%) among affluent pupils (in the least deprived quintile).

Among learners in the FE and skills sector, more than half are from the lowest income households. Almost a third of all FE students — 683,000 people — are from the most deprived 20% of the population. Only 12% — or 266,000 people – of students in FE come from the wealthiest 20% of households.

4. Pressures on FE leaders

Finally, specific features of FE leadership should prompt further thought. FE college principals are ageing and a third are aged 55 and over. There are also growing concerns about the risks and pressures faced by FE principals: there have been some high-profile departures of principals from the sector over the last 12 months.

Last year, David Hughes, from the Association of Colleges argued that: ‘We will struggle to create the culture, the environment and the institutions we want if the leadership roles are fraught with risk and potential vilification.’

Who FE leaders are

Drawing on interviews with principals and survey evidence, our project has also tried to build a picture of who FE leaders are. The predominant progression route into the role of principal appears to be via teaching and leadership roles in FE. Around two thirds of principals have a background in education and training.

Other – though less common – routes include progressing up the administrative functions in FE (such as finance); transferring from another public sector career; and entering senior management from a private sector business. A minority of leaders come directly from outside the sector. The colleges that such leaders oversee appear on average to be are larger.

Our analysis reveals that further education leaders are diverse by background. Women and ethnic minorities are better represented in FE leadership than in university leadership. However, while 9% of principals come from a Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic background (BAME), 18% of students are from BAME backgrounds.

Developing further education leadership

The next phase of our research will look at how college leaders can be developed.

That will include thinking about training and development, establishing a strong pipeline of talent through the sector, as well as learning lessons from sectors such as schools.

Nigel Keohane, Head of Research, Social Market Foundation

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