Secret lecturer: No pretence, total honesty and more funding?

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Secret lecturer: No pretence, total honesty and more funding?

That great carrot in the sky left dangling by the chancellor as a campaigning target for FE colleges may not happen this summer. Recent hints from Philip Hammond suggest the much heralded comprehensive spending review - potentially FE’s funding lifeline - might now have to wait until after the resolution of Brexit. 

Which means we could be in for much more of the same: candidates applying for vacant CEO and principal positions and believing that they - unlike their predecessors - can fix things and make big changes when the reality is an often impossible hill to climb with no real funding in sight.

Recruitment merry-go-round based on ‘pretence’

Honesty and realism are desperately needed both by the college governors recruiting new leaders and the applicants. Yet whoever heard of anyone applying for a leadership post and telling their interview panel they can’t produce the expected rabbits out of a hat without funding and still land the job? And once you are in post it’s even more difficult to acknowledge the mountain you have to climb. It’s a recruitment merry-go-round based on a huge, collective pretence or, at best, self-delusion. Let’s get real. No real increase in funding means no real improvement. Geddit?

As rank and file lecturers, I and colleagues across the country are constantly witnessing this vicious circle of strings of candidates putting their hands up to deliver something that will never happen because of a lack of resources. So we get more resignations, more recruitment and yet more resignations. In truth, many candidates suffer from built-in self-delusion that they can’t or don’t want to acknowledge and which is often not the fault of the individual but part of the inherent process of leadership recruitment.

‘Can do’ approach that often backfires

The FE commissioner suffers from the same dilemma. He works with the government and colleges in the belief that he too can fix things. However, many of his largest interventions require him to write critical reports about college leaders who, because of sums not adding up, have failed to deliver on genuine promises. Maybe the bubble of self-belief has grown too large and needs bursting.

Ironically, and at long last, Theresa May has been speaking out in the past week about the need for more FE funding. What remarkable timing! When asked why she was only speaking about it now - in the final days of her premiership - and not a lot earlier, she offered no direct answer and hid behind the claim of increased government spending on FE over the past few years. 

The only way forward is campaigning together

Of course, I’m not defending any college leaders who have clearly been doing the wrong thing but colleges cannot, year after year, see surveys showing FE teachers are on average paid £7,000 pa less than school teachers . . .  we can’t recruit on that basis. And we cannot allow the FE commissioner to keep saying to college leaders if you do it my way, you can fix it. It’s a nonsense. The only real way forward is to campaign together - it’s not safe to do so alone. And there’s no time to lose with the next Love Our Colleges lobbying week planned this October. Last year’s inaugural campaign gave rise to huge optimism as dozens of principals joined with their staff and students to lobby MPs. Now we have to do better than that.

A few months ago the Association of Colleges chief executive, David Hughes, wrote in TES that we should not be so hard on failure. I and my fellow lecturers want to move this on a bit. I can’t think of another sector that currently works actively together as well as we do in campaigning for funding - and we should be proud of that - and yet at the same time fight each other over pay.

The analogy of Brexit

Take Brexit as an analogy. If we’d only formed a national government on Brexit immediately after the referendum result to pool our best political brains across all parties, we would almost certainly not be in this current mess. Colleges, however, still do have the opportunity to work together, to get governors, management, staff and students round a table in a joint initiative, and to be brutally honest about what can and can’t be done. 

There are examples of institutions like London’s Capital City College Group (whose CEO took a 10% pay cut) and Hugh Baird College, Liverpool, where leadership teams prioritised staff pay after recognising that there is an existential threat to their organisations. But there are also countless CEOs and principals who have gone without a pay rise for years. The bottom line is that no one right across the pay scale is getting an increase because there is simply no money.

We have a huge problem so let’s work together rather seeing many of our leaders believing they can solve things when they can’t. Humility in leadership always works if people collaborate and put their cards on the table. Them vs us never does.

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