The notion of the learning leader is well and truly here. In the FE sector, I am hearing of new roles being created that explicitly embody this, such as VP for Transforming Learning, Director of Innovation and Learning Improvement, Head of Teaching and Learning. Hooray! It is about time we had senior level roles with an overarching responsibility for the heart of our work – enabling and improving learning. Similarly, curriculum managers and academic heads are finding that their roles are being re-shaped to focus more fully on T&L improvement in their areas, to take them closer to the classroom.
This all makes perfect sense if we are committed to focusing on teaching and learning improvement as the heart of our work in colleges. However, it can be a struggle to walk the talk. Strategies, strap lines and mission statements all proclaim an almost messianic drive towards improving T&L and yet on the ground, operational life has not caught up in some institutions. Many people tell me that ways of working and the everyday priorities still reflect the old world in which admin and bureaucracy dominated. This may just mean we are in transition and it is taking a while to turn the tanker, but it could also mean that there is a degree of lip service or just a lack of appropriate focus at this point in time.
So what would a learning leader who walks the talk look like? I think I have met and worked with some of these inspiring, energising people. They are:
1. In touch with classroom issues- aware of the learning contexts in their divisions as they do frequent drop in observations, act as cover, meet learners and talk to staff about classroom issues
2. Up to date with pedagogy and research trends- they read, they attend training, they are involved in CPD activities and even deliver them as well
3. Credible as a classroom practitioner- they still teach, even if it is only for a few hours a week
4. Skilled in developing their team– capable of delivering varied good practice activities so that team meetings are not death by agenda, but instead, an engaging, collaborative chance to share and learn; skilled in coaching individuals and following up on development plans so they actually come to life
5. Skilled in observing and giving feedback– so that a balanced overview of strengths and areas for development is produced for individuals and the team; follow up is supportive and appropriate, maybe involving peer observation or mentoring etc
6. Able to manage performance fairly and decisively– this means growing strong performers and tackling issues in T&L in decisive, but constructive ways
7. Able to communicate their vision for T&L and engage staff with it– creating cohesive teams with shared values and some shared approaches
8. Able to steer an institution towards improved practice – through focusing operational processes and procedures on key priorities for T&L and ensuring communication channels work towards this main goal
9. Aware of the need to join up central strategic planning with wider development work – for example, with CPD, quality processes, observations and appraisal so that everything aligns to the drive for T&L improvement
Learning leaders like this can enable teachers to keep learning and improving, creating the conditions for quality improvement for their learners. They can drive an institution forward positively. So I think we need learning leaders at both middle management and senior management levels. To me, this is not a new role to put into the structure; it is a revised concept of what managers are doing in their role.
A reality check………As I write this, I can hear overburdened curriculum managers laughing in manic fashion or sighing in despair. Many would like to develop this role and skill set but there are barriers and fixed ways of working in colleges that can make this seem insurmountable. Here are a few that I have heard mentioned in numerous institutions:
- Time being wasted in meetings that are death by agenda, with little accountability or follow up of actions
- Working groups and committees duplicating work streams and not joining up properly
- Communication channels not existing where they should, e.g. no scheduled network meeting for Programme Leaders or Section Leaders so that it is so easy for communications to get lost or muddled in the chain, and there is no consistent opportunity for sharing of good practice or collaboration
- Managers being asked for a vast amount of onerous reports that tie up their time on a purely bureaucratic level and yet appear to lead to little action or change
All of these barriers mean that middle managers and academic heads are bogged down on tasks that do not directly affect teaching and learning and keep them away from interaction with teachers and learners.
So what can leaders and managers do to make learning leaders a reality?
- I think there needs to be a big conversation in colleges about how management works, what it does and how it could be used more creatively to focus on T&L improvement. This is a conversation about vision, values, priorities and the kind of culture we want to create in our colleges
- I think managers need to open the debate together about barriers to a real focus on T&L and some options for a new approach to operational working – much of this will related to how meeting time and staff development slots are used,; how to improve tracking systems so that they are better fit for purpose and less onerous. I see how often we can improve ways of working when we think creatively and in a solution-focused way about issues and challenges, but there is a need to start that process with some open debate
- Senior leaders can help a great deal here by being open to a frank conversation about the expectations that middle managers feel from above. I have seen some cases where misunderstanding about priorities from each level has led to major operational issues, so it’s useful to make sure there is clarity on both sides about how to spend time at work
Teaching and learning has rightly moved centre stage in the FE sector so I think we now need to ensure that managers’ roles and tasks align well to that, enabling them to move the sector forward in ways that support and develop learners and teachers. I sense huge frustration from many managers, particularly curriculum managers, that this is currently so difficult for them. I imagine for them it would be a very positive thing to start the academic year seeing some new priorities and approaches in place. For senior leaders I imagine it could feel good to know the other managers were aligned and focusing on T&L with greater efficacy in future.