Emma Forrest-Leigh MA, PGCE, QTLS, MIEE, Associate Principal of the Creative and Digital Faculty, Grimsby Institute

Wow! What a few months that was. I don’t know about you but I didn’t study a module in pandemic leadership when I did my management training. All eyes were (and still are) on us leaders for the answers, as we knitted together in the same fog as the health advisers and Government did, while the virus took hold and keeps hold. It has been exhausting!

So much for the theory of working at home being easier, eh?! I couldn’t conceive running a normal week at work in any kind of productive way with my two kids running around my office day in day out, yet here I was, home-schooling two children with phonics and fractions lessons whilst working with my colleagues to find solutions to keep college studies going online, during a pandemic. All at once. I mean, who can do that? In the background I worried about running out of nappies and baked beans whilst seeing my husband work 24/7 at the kitchen table for the NHS preparing training materials, often in Teams meetings.

In all honesty (poor spouse points) I didn’t fully understand what his job involved before and I have a new-found respect for this side of him that I haven’t seen before. And my McDonalds-starved kids began to understand our work too, which was kind of cool. I am sure this is an echoed experience all across the country. Life was suddenly very different.

I have always tried to look reasonably well put together at work but my hair has got more and more “interesting” and, in the past month alone, I have had my youngest jump on my knee in the middle of a work meeting and pull my top down, right there in the middle of the Microsoft Teams call. Well that was quite a day, a tale that will be told over many a Christmas dinner I suspect, and the stuff of work gossip (luckily well-meaning), to entertain the masses for a while to come.

Keep calm and carry on

Trying to maintain some semblance of dignity has required me to lean on the luckily well-established relations I have with my work colleagues, relationships which I have always fostered, but never before been so grateful for the immense strength of, in the way I have these past few months. Thank goodness for the adaptability and positivity of my great colleagues.

The kids must have heard both of us at home saying, “Is my screen sharing?”, or “You are on mute” so many times now that I am sure their generation will have started to see these as standard work vocabulary phrases. Six months ago, I hadn’t said either of those phrases and, come to think of it, thought I pretty much knew who I was as a leader, where my faculty was heading and where I was taking it. I have been doing this for a fair few years now and had found my groove.

Then everything changed, without warning or request. And we were expected to keep calm and carry on, which of course we all did, because that is what we do in FE. But wow – this was a biggie wasn’t it?! And it isn’t over. It is hard to know where to go or what to do next. We all need a break, we are tired of the increased brain drain, screen time and multi-tasking. And now is the time we need to be our best selves, the leaders to inspire the next generation and get colleges back on track.

Change can be invigorating, refreshing and bring new impact to a new world

So let me check; the world has turned upside down, we are exhausted, our heads are still spinning, we have no map, but we need to steer the ship on its most dangerous journey yet? It is just me or does this sound like quite an ask? Ok, so we have a small window of time over the summer to reflect and consider plans that we can put in place, and that is what I really want to talk about here.

Whilst things have been complex, and I hope my story resonates with some of you reading this, I am incredibly lucky because I am one of those rare beasts in leadership; I am a creative practitioner who has risen through FE roles and landed in the beautiful and rewarding orbit of FE leadership, where we truly can change lives for the better as a result of our work. And if you are a creative, you will know what it means when I say that I feel lucky to be a creative. We love change. We love a good mix up.

Let me be clear, I am in no way underestimating the devastating impact that Covid-19 has had and will continue to have, and I have experienced a level of sadness I would not wish upon anyone. But, if we look simply at the fact that FE colleges need to look at different ways to operate, quite separate to the cause, then the creative leadership part of me begins to get quite excited.

Change can be invigorating, refreshing and bring new impact to a new world when the reasoning behind it is made transparent. Let’s be honest, things have changed for everyone anyway due to the social distancing measures, so we know we know why we need to make changes and we can’t avoid it for the sake of those who don’t like change. But change can be energising if all stakeholders feel part of it and feel the value of it, and my goodness we all need an injection of energy right now. The sector is ripe for it.

Now is the time for us to be brave and to boost people, to empower ideas and innovation. If no one has the answers, then anyone could have the answers, right? So right across the organisation, we can look to harness the reflections and experiences of everyone to find our way through. There has never been a better time to envelope the whole team as stakeholders. Yes, they need us as leaders, but we need them more.

Home of the Brave

If you walk into the college I work from, you are welcomed by a bright neon sign that says “Home of the Brave”, a sign which we consciously and purposefully installed. We are clear that this mind-set is the only mind-set.

We work in FE. Industry needs change, awarding body processes change, funding changes, nothing stands still. So tackling that head on is the best way in my view. And why? Because, more than anything else, STUDENTS change. Students’ worlds change fast and have changed at an accelerated pace recently.

The college I work from is a college designed for students, by students. During lockdown we have done a number of interviews since we won our two Beacon Awards this year, for projects under my wing, and we have been asked for the secret to our success. It is simple; our top tip is to always sneak a look at the back pages of the book where the answers are printed. We ask our students!

We are charged with designing a learning environment in which our students can excel. In my mind, we can’t do this using our 40+ (seasoned by experience!) brains, we should use our 16-year-old minds. We ask the students. It might seems obvious but some providers lose this way of thinking with practitioners who are a few years into leadership and understandably worn down by the responsibilities and pressures that the role brings, as well as the experience of how hard it is to drive change to a successful end at times. That rawness of ambition to “make a difference” that you started with will have inevitably been added to with an awareness of the many affecting factors that senior leadership brings.

How many times have you sat in your office and has an idea or worked up a proposal and then thought about the response you might get from your senior colleagues and what they might think? Hmm, it is impossible! Yes, understandable and you are not alone. That is why people like me can be royal pains to work with at times, because we don’t have that as our first thought.

Fortunately, I work with a forward-thinking leadership team. Of course, we all need to think responsibly about risk factors, reputation and economic factors, but our first thought is ALWAYS: “What would the students think?” We ask our student chrysalis group, where if I may point out, we are often gifted the innovation rather than us presenting it to them for their consideration. If an idea for a teaching method, the introduction of a qualification, a new way to enrol, a room to study in or a way to receive communication doesn’t appeal to them, then why would we do it? This team are our secret shoppers, our 16 to 24-year-old brain that we need, our answers at the back of the book.

Once an idea goes down well with them, we take it to the staff team, who would need to make it come alive and see if they have the fire for it and, if it is still hot, it can go to our senior colleagues for consideration. In that order. It takes guts because some things might not land well, or seem radical, or not be understood by the audience who eventually have to back the idea you present and assist with the systems it might require, to give it the heartbeat it needs to live in the organisation. But it is the way we changed a media qualification into a production team, the way we started to run overseas residential placements for under 18s, the way we introduced social media and a pick’n’mix masterclass portfolio and last month’s interactive exhibition with a Facebook Live launch.

Would I want to study at my college?

Would I get excited at the prospect of the year ahead based on my interview and enrolment experience? Would I be inspired to be my best when I walked through the entrance to college each day and get butterflies in my stomach? That is why I went into educational leadership in FE and I suspect you did too.

The great Fine Art photographer Floria Sigismondi displayed the knowledge and behaviours we can draw from to inspire our next generation. She was dedicated to her own practice and refused to be distracted from her core goals; she was experimental and innovative trying new ideas and pushing boundaries.

She made no apologies for her extravagant approach because crucially she had her finger on the pulse of the lives of her clients and because was a calculated risk taker, knowing her following and wanting to keep her product edgy and one step ahead, to excite them and bring them with her as she led the way.

So my question to you is this; when did you last wonder what the students would think of your ideas BEFORE you considered what anyone else might think or how cumbersome the blocks might be? If they aren’t the first point of consideration, then I think there is an opportunity for a change of approach right there.

I am very fortunate that my college has an amazing leadership team with a mix of skills, and I am always given the air space to share ideas and feel listened to and we all share the “student first” mind-set. If you have too many people like me in your leadership team, without other skillsets to balance things out, then it could get messy.

We are colourful and spontaneous and present a challenge to those leaders who we equally need, those who manage the vital processes and procedures that creative innovators need to have in place as the solid foundations from which we can bounce about, knowing we are safe and have the support we need. But without us, things can get grey.

Students don’t generally respond well to grey. And with Covid-19, we have too many grey skies and need some new energy. It is a balance of skillsets to create the best leadership team and we need great teams now, more than ever. So when you see us, the Tiggers of the pack, bouncing about the place in leadership meetings with our big scary ideas, give us a seat at the table and please remember not to laugh at all of the ideas or write them all off straight way, because I suggest that all leadership teams need at least one of us.

The person who can tap into the mind-set of the customer will bring you lots of the solutions, so you can select some of them to build the structure that leads to an outstanding college. So, as we emerge into the new normal (a phrase which I hate, and apologise for using, but sums up the situation) have a think about your team players and those who might be able to bring the innovation and energy you need, while we all lack the hard edges and answers that don’t exist right now. And ask them.

Emma Forrest-Leigh MA, PGCE, QTLS, MIEE, Associate Principal of the Creative and Digital Faculty, Grimsby Institute

DfE T Level panel member. AoC Beacon Award Lead Assessor. Cambridge Access Validating Agency External. School Governor. RSA Fellow.

Emma has been commended for leadership, practical learning, technology use and innovation in education competitions, and this year won two AoC Beacon Awards. Her faculty has also racked up two commendations in the previous year and is among the highest results in FE for the past three years running (according to national achievement rates tables). Emma is a practicing silversmith who has exhibited at the V&A and worked with Toyah Willcox and Topshop. Emma lives in Lincoln with her husband and two young children and is keeping busy this summer undertaking her HEA Senior Fellowship and L8 Strategic Management qualification while isolating in lockdown.

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