In my FE training and consultancy work, I have met many Heads of Faculty/Area recently and had some interesting conversations about their role and their challenges in focusing on teaching and learning. This role in colleges tends to involve a wide range of internal and external-facing responsibilities, for example and in no particular order:
- Monitoring and reporting on the progress and achievement of learners
- Reviewing and refining the provision offer
- Line management of curriculum and/or programme managers
- Networking with partner organisations
- Making relationships with key external stakeholders, e.g. Employers and other vocational bodies
- Communication with assessor and awarding bodies
- Contributing to strategy and policy discussions in college
- Attending a range of management forums
- Leading on disciplinary and grievance procedures with learners and teachers
- Managing performance of staff
- Contributing to the lesson observation process
The breadth of this role and its impact on many aspects of work within the curriculum mean that these managers often speak of being pulled between competing priorities and finding it a challenge to maintain a focus on classroom practices. For some, the link to everyday teaching practices has been severed as they no longer teach. For others, they may teach but rarely get into others’ classrooms to get a wider sense of practices and learner experience in their area. For many, there is the additional challenge of leading curriculum areas in which they have no previous curriculum expertise.
I am meeting many people who are aware that they need and want to focus on teaching and learning within their working day and they welcome ideas of how to make this happen. Here are a few thoughts:
- Set a regular agenda item with the curriculum managers to discuss teaching and learning related points. This could be a one-to-one meeting or a cluster group meeting to allow for sharing of ideas and trouble shooting together. I often note that middle managers can feel quite isolated in college life with few opportunities to talk about HOW they are working on T&L in their teams. They can really appreciate time with their HoF/HoA to focus on this in a reflective and constructive way. If the HoF/HoA can use a coaching approach in these conversations, it is all the better for empowering middle managers to drive improvement at their level.
- Think about how to get a feel for the learners’ experience in your area. Could this be via focus groups or round table discussions with learners that will give richer feedback than a survey? Or would you prefer to organise regular, short drop in sessions around the departments, to see different courses in action? If drop ins are your preferred approach, it is important to think about how to involve the teachers and middle managers in this process and work transparently in a positive way, so that it does not come over as policing.
- Where appropriate, offer to act as a cover teacher sometimes so that someone can do a peer observation or attend an important external event. I note that Heads who are prepared to get into the classroom in this way are often perceived positively by staff as “in touch with the reality on the ground.” There is a risk of becoming more and more detached from the chalkface as you ascend the FE hierarchy and spend more of your time in meetings and excel sheets. I would argue that there is a need to retain a connection to the classroom in different ways, in order to understand what is happening in your area, be able to relate to staff and learners, and lead T&L from a more informed position.
- Some Heads raise their eyebrows at me on this one, but I think a bit of teaching is a good idea! It may not be practical to teach a year-long programme for a group, but most people could contribute to a module or an aspect of a programme or get involved in some study skills delivery. With some FE colleges starting to feel more like commercial institutions than learning centres, this direct contact with learners grounds people in what we are really about.
- Look for opportunities to keep up-to-date with pedagogy and wider sector discussions of how to lead teaching and learning. There are plenty of inspiring, insightful and practical bloggers out there who can help with this.
- Think about your own skills and needs and ask for training/ development support so that you can become a more effective leader of learning. For some Heads this is about gaining confidence in running engaging agenda items with teachers related to T&L; for others it is about developing their own awareness of social media so they can become more informed more easily; for others, it is about working with a mentor inside or outside the organisation to reflect on wider leadership and management skills.
- Ask the middle managers how you can help them close the loop on quality improvement work, for example by following up on CPD, lesson observation processes and SAR priorities. Get involved in sampling of schemes of work and marked work audits now and then. As a Head, you cannot do these things every week, but some of it scheduled into your diary across the term would be a very productive thread of activity.
For Heads to be able to work in this way, the level above them need to have a focus on T&L and be aware of the value of incorporating this into busy workloads. In some settings, I hear Heads bemoaning the fact that their leaders are more interested in data and reports than anything related to developing T&L. To a large extent, what the leaders ask for will often drive what the managers below them focus on, with workloads as heavy as they are right now in FE. The numbers only say where we are, so for me much more effort and focus needs to be dedicated to discussing how we move this forward through T&L improvement work in our colleges. Heads of Faculty/Area can play a significant part in this if their role is configured correctly and their time used effectively.