This blog summarises personal reflections on a professional development day spent with middle managers from three further education colleges looking at ‘developing a culture of excellence through collaboration’. The event was facilitated by Sue Keenan of Myerscough, Stef Wilkinson from Barnsley and Tam Breeze from Kendal who took the participants on a journey exploring curriculum, through organisational strategy to the importance of culture.
Implications arose for the practice of the managers themselves, those that support them and their partners both inside and outside their organisations.
This professional development session made me revisit many of the concepts within the thinkpiece ‘understanding dual professionalism: boundaries and opportunities’ particularly reflecting on the positioning of middle managers in adult learning settings.
In undertaking this re-examination, I focus particularly on the provocations: ‘provide protected time and space for adult educators to co-construct professional development opportunities’ and ‘build management and leadership capacity to foster high quality professional development’, particularly in the context of middle managers.
Middle Manager Identity: crisis or celebration?
It was clear from the event that middle managers are positioned in the space between leaders and practitioners, where they act as mediators, moderators and brokers. ‘Coaching’, ’mentoring’, ‘collaboration’, ‘innovation’, ‘reflection’, ‘cultural capital’, ‘growth’, and ‘employer engagement’ were all part of their narrative.
It emerged that the managers represented are expected to be highly adaptive in a fluid, rapidly flexing and ill-defined environment. Healthy Wealthy and Wise also exposed other spaces, where organisations interact, and agencies work together. In these contexts, middle managers are also expected to operate outside their own organisations and understand the perspectives of others working to support adult learning. They need to be experts in their subject, experienced teachers, but also to develop a need for understanding of the professional priorities of external partners with whom they interact.
In such settings the expectations on middle managers appear to be extremely high. They are expected to influence others, both insiders and outsiders, but they are not described as ‘leaders’. Their identity may be conflated with that of ‘leaders’ especially when they are operating as the ‘multi professionals’ necessary to support the implementation of the Healthy Wealthy and Wise recommendations for workforce development.
Enhancing the capacity of middle managers may centre on Stef Wilkinson’s (Barnsley College) understanding of ‘brave leadership’ (see, for example Davis 2018). Stef highlights that the concept has potential to foster collaboration through being both true to one’s own values as well as supporting active engagement with the external environment. This engagement requires redefining cultural norms and in multiagency contexts these norms are unlikely to be entirely mutually supportive.
In many adult learning settings middle managers have significant curriculum responsibilities coupled with oversight of teaching and learning. However, Tam Breeze from Kendal College invited the group of middle managers to consider how much of their time was spent on teaching and learning. 10% emerged as a consensus. Underpinning this deficit was the fact that middle managers often need to be reactive in responding to urgent problems rather than having protected space to support teaching and learning. Nevertheless, the group demonstrated a rich understanding of what ‘excellence’ meant to them, their colleagues and their organisation. Teaching and learning strategies came alive in meaningful ways.
The emphasis on curriculum is likely to be further strengthened by Ofsted’s new approach to scrutiny. At the event Sue Keenan from Myerscough College explored the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) following the first few weeks of its implementation. Sue created a powerful and authentic picture of what ‘Intent’, ‘Implementation’ and ‘Impact’ look like in reality. The EIF brings new expectations into play for middle managers. There is an external element to the narrative where curricula are expected to make sense in both learning and employment contexts.
In reflecting on the day, it occurred to me that the attributes of Identity, Autonomy and Authority characterised the positioning of middle managers. Managers themselves are unlikely to own all, or indeed, any of these domains. Nevertheless, a rich understanding of their roles and the rewards and challenges within them emerged. New interactions were created, and existing relationships deepened. The shared values and vision of Stef, Sue and Tam created conditions that encouraged diverse and colourful understandings of ‘excellence’ to emerge. The day fostered extensive capacity building and exemplified expansive professional development.
Dr Colin Forrest is an honorary visiting research fellow at Leeds Trinity University where he teaches occasionally on the MA in Education. He is currently working with the Education and Training Foundation supporting Technical and Vocational Education Programmes. He is a governor at Northern College.
You might also be interested in:
- Rethinking workforce development for adult educators (blog) - the first in this series of blog posts focusing on adult learning and workforce development
- Why adult learning strategies need a workforce plan (blog) - the second in this series of blog posts focusing on adult learning and workforce development
- University and College Union - How your employer can support your continuing professional development (resource) - a practical guide that helps FE staff to understand how to approach continuing professional development (CPD)
- Turning on the pause button and listening (blog) - the sixth in this series of blog posts focusing on adult learning and workforce development