Developing school leaders

In a recent TES editorial, Ann Mroz prompted us to consider what makes a great leader ( The question was focused on the challenge of developing future school leaders, but it’s also a very pertinent question in the context of the level of change in Further Education right now.

Numerous studies have explored this issue over the years and have highlighted a number of significant attributes for successful leadership – vision and strategic thinking, the ability to grasp complexity, innovation, and effective people management and distributed leadership. Previous research undertaken by Collab Group and partners equally put the spotlight on a range of attributes – including resilience, self-awareness, political skills and a systemic mind-set to name a view – required within teams and across organisations for effective leadership.

Broader skills needed

However, the current scale and pace of change within the Further Education sector, driven by funding reductions, Area Based Reviews and apprenticeship reform, is giving rise to a growing recognition that a further set of leadership skills and attributes are required to successfully lead and grow organisations into the future. This is not to say that the attributes above are no longer needed. They are. But they are needed alongside strong capabilities in other key areas.

Commercial colleges?, the recent report by the Gazelle Colleges Group and Wickland Westcott, provides a valuable analysis of the implications of the profound changes taking place on the sector, its leadership and its capacity to change. And as the name suggests, the report concludes that colleges need to adopt more commercial approaches to survive and prosper.

We wholeheartedly agree and for us this means a number of things with respect to the skills required of future sector leaders, many of which resonate with the Gazelle/Wickland Westcott findings. It means the application of commercial financial skills to diversify income, generate efficiencies and effectively manage the top and bottom line. It means proficient risk assessment and management. It means effective system leadership, across institutions and sectors, building relationships with key partners. And it means developing entrepreneurial capabilities, enabling innovation and continuously striving to improve. No mean feat, but remember these are the skills required by the leadership team, not a single figurehead at the apex of the organisation.

Through our conversations in the sector, it would seem there is a growing consensus about the ‘what’ that is required and many would agree with the leadership skills set out above. The harder question is to determine how these skills can be effectively developed in leaders and leadership teams.

Experiential learning

Whilst there is undoubtedly still a place for online and face-to-face workshop approaches, we feel that the core of any future leadership development activities will need to be experiential learning, i.e. learning through doing, through secondments, mentoring or project-based activity. Whilst these are logistically harder to organise, they provide maximum benefit through exposure to new ways of thinking and behaving, even more so if they are undertaken outside of the FE sector.

One answer may be to seek individuals who have already acquired a commercial skills set and the recruitment of senior managers and leaders from the private and non-education sectors is a trend AELP and Collab Group have explored in a FETL-supported project.

We also need to ask how these same commercial skills can be nurtured in managers throughout the organisation to ensure a sustainable pipeline of talent with the necessary set of (evolving) skills. And how can colleges and training providers be convinced to invest in the development of these leadership skills, given all the other draws on their pressured finances?

These are the big questions that Collab Group, together with AELP, Pearson and other partners, are keen to explore. Sector leadership development needs to be re-designed to ensure that leaders are best equipped with the necessary skills to lead the scale and pace of transformation required. Let’s put our partnership working skills to the test and do this together.


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