Sandy Henderson

Exploring the mood and wellbeing of #FE

Does this better describe the students, or the whole sector? The parallels abound, in Leading by Listening: Reflective Learning, my study of the #FE sector that is published today (13 Feb):

  • misunderstood by those in authority;
  • forced into an ill-fitting educational straitjacket;
  • assessed using crude and unfavourable measures;
  • denied the flexibility and resources that could unlock their potential;
  • feeling overwhelmed and undervalued;
  • wracked with insecurity and self-doubt;
  • under implicit pressure to game the system;
  • struggling to make the best of what they’ve got;
  • riven with destructive and self-harming behaviour;
  • scarred with a sense of failure. 

Leading by Listening, published by the think-tank FETL (Further Education Trust for Leadership) explores the mood and wellbeing of FE in 2019. It uses unedited quotes, with accompanying analysis, drawn from 33 confidential and anonymised conversations conducted with (separate groups of) students, teaching staff, support staff and college leadership teams, including three AoC regional groups of college leaders.

Participants discussed with each other what it felt like to be them, holding their particular role in FE at that moment. The conversations were unfacilitated, except when they broke down or went off-topic. The report identifies the themes and patterns that connect the discussions, based on a detailed sifting of fully 200,000 words of transcript.

The thirst for conversation

At a meta-level, a clear trend was the thirst for conversation: so many groups wanted to continue after their hour was up, said how therapeutic they had found the experience or expressed a wish to hold more ‘Listening Posts’, as they are called, on a regular basis.

The need to talk is a healthy sign but not in itself a marker of wellness. Indeed, it might be a distress signal: an indication that the patient’s resilience is being sorely tested. Crying out will not make the pain go away; yet the knowledge that it has been heard and recognised can somehow make it easier to bear. In any event, the presenting symptom is chronic pain.

In Leading by Listening, the sources of pain are explored, in detail, and organised to show how group psychology works. In essence, this is that, whenever groups have to operate in challenging conditions, they cope at the cost of dysfunction in any of three directions:

  1. Deviating from their purpose (through a misalignment between ends and means)
  2. Losing touch with practical reality (through a misalignment between theory and practice), and
  3. Becoming disharmonious (through a misalignment in relationships)

In larger groups, such as a college or whole sector, it can be all three directions, in varying degrees.

A feature of Leading by Listening is the readiness of different groups to export blame, fingers are pointed at:

  • Whitehall by the leadership groups
  • College leadership teams by their teaching and support staff, and
  • Teaching and support staff by the students

The point is not that the externalisation of blame is always undeserved but that framing an issue in this way insulates the group from having to examine its own contribution to the predicament it faces.

Another feature of the report is deviation from purpose, often by the pursuit of narrow or short-term goals at the cost of longer-term objectives, producing institutional paralysis or stalemate. In Leading by Listening, it is strongly suggested that the Maths and English condition of funding is interfering with the primary purpose of colleges as pathways into vocational or technical employment, or into Higher Education.

Advertisement

There are also indications that the current funding regime is exacerbating the number of mismatched enrolments involving unsuitable students or unsuitable courses (including students enrolling to qualify for benefits, free travel or free equipment); and that the performance measurement regime is also incentivising not only the retention of absent or disruptive students but also ways of indirectly assisting students to pass their course (for example, by simplifying course content, widening SEND provision and turning a blind eye to cheating).

It is dysfunction of the third kind, however, that seems most acute in FE, and therefore most harmful to its wellbeing: disconnection from practical reality.

From the discussions held in Leading by Listening, Principals and CEOs face daunting (reality-defying) financial and operational dilemmas; support staff are on their knees, overwhelmed by the explosion in students’ psychological, emotional and educational needs; teaching staff are at breaking point, expected to equip students with functional skills in English and Maths where schools have failed, and then assessed for the improvements they can show in retention, attendance, behaviour and achievement with reduced teaching hours, inadequate resources and increasing demands for management information.

Meanwhile, Ofsted is charged with the task of measuring something (contextualised performance) that is to all intents and purposes unmeasurable. Finally, some students are forced, like Sisyphus, to keep rolling an impossibly large GCSE boulder up the hill; others are enabled to gain qualifications without acquiring the skills employers want; and a further contingent are incapacitated by an ingrained dependency that leaves them unwilling or unable to be mobilised to make good use of their talents and aptitudes.

Balancing the wellbeing of students with an increasing cost to the wellbeing of the staff

Overall, Leading by Listening paints a picture of the sector that is unvarnished because it is unfiltered – the views expressed come straight from the horse’s mouth, without needing to be whipped into shape by the jockey. Even so, its conclusions support the underlying rationale for the research.

This was a hunch – call it an hypothesis if you prefer a fancier title – that developing resilience is an unacknowledged area of expertise within FE, based on its track record in ‘turnaround’ stories, in which students are helped to come to terms with the limitations that have held them back (whether emotional, psychological, social, educational, domestic or other), and make progress along the pathway towards becoming productive and self-reliant members of society.

What seems clear in Leading by Listening, though, is that the enhanced wellbeing of the students is now coming at an increasing (dare I say, unacceptable) cost to the wellbeing of the staff, notwithstanding the pride and satisfaction they may derive from their accomplishments. The response to this by certain colleges has been to treat the symptoms because they are unable to treat the cause.

If I am permitted one observation of my own, rather than letting the sector speak entirely for itself, the principal cause seems to me to be not so much financial constraints as the system of performance measurement to which colleges and students are subject.

The Ofsted evaluation schedule, as with the high-performance culture adopted by some colleges, is responsible for creating failure as well as success by seeking to measure the extent by which a given standard of adequacy is or is not met. This kind of measurement cannot take account of the turbulence within the system that affects performance but is beyond the control of those being measured.

For students, it may be dysfunctional home lives, emotional turmoil, basic needs not being met or the tendency to be overwhelmed by pressure or anxiety during events of great importance to them.

For colleges, it may be problems with staff recruitment or absence, loss of funding, higher levels of student need, increases in the proportion of students at Levels 1 and 2, or any other of a number of issues.

The effective and useful measure in all cases is not excellence but reliability: how consistently do students – and, by extension, colleges – show progress, year on year, in terms of meeting (or exceeding) the required standard of adequacy in terms of attendance, behaviour and educational achievement?

Distinctions, merits and ‘Outstanding’ ratings can wait. The first and most important measure of progress is consistency. If there is a consistent message to be gleaned from Leading by Listening, it is this.

Sandy Henderson, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Researcher and Writer. He was the Director of OPUS from 2016 to 2019.

You may also be interested in these articles:

Register, Login or Login with your Social Media account:


Advertisers

Newsroom Activity

PromoteEd has published a new article: Patrick goes back to basics 16 minutes ago
FE News: The Future of Education News Channel had a status update on Twitter 2 hours 11 minutes ago

Skills to Fight Back – Where’s the Plan?: Graham Hasting-Evans from @NOCNGroup discusses the Chancellors Summer Eco… https://t.co/jt5I2BpOXi
View Original Tweet

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In May 2020, FE News had over 120,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.

Podcasts

We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.

Events

FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page