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Is workload one of the FE sector’s ‘wicked problems’? - Katie Stafford

18 April 2024

By Katie Stafford, Deputy Principal at New City College Hackney Campus and Research Further Scholar

A wicked problem is generally defined as a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve. Often, they are problems that have many interdependent factors which are incomplete and in flux. They can manifest in different ways, to different people and in different locations. Writers claim that as they are so difficult to solve, it may be more productive to look at ways to improve the issues of a wicked problem than aim to resolve it.

A review of the academic literature from 1997 through to the present identifies changes in the role and perception of middle managers over the past 27 years. While the earlier research shows that middle managers were feeling the emotional stress of being “caught in the middle” of mediating the changes in policy with teaching staff and recalibrating their professional values, more recently, the research indicates that the role continues to be highly demanding as these managers balance carefully the needs to administer the predictable system of accountability and the on-demand and sometimes unpredictable needs of their teaching team and students. This often plays into the background of achieving a good life and work balance due to excessive and unmanageable workloads. The literature review therefore suggests that in 27, years we have not yet “cracked” the FE workload conundrum.

The issue of needing to manage administrative and people-based role responsibilities could easily be extended to a significant number of job roles within a college. Sir Bernard O’Connell, in his 2005 book entitled “Creating an Outstanding College” claimed that the strong focus on organisational culture and values underpinned the success of Runshaw College in achieving its grade 1. In achieving a change in culture, staff at the college had identified that they wanted leaders to be caring, to feel valued and respected. Arguably, a lot, and equally nothing, has changed in sector over the past 28 years. The need to actively demonstrate care for staff and in turn, to support the delivery of outstanding education is an important and enduring one. Especially given the wider issues of the post-pandemic period.

Complexity Theory is a useful lens on which to explain the challenges of workload. It is concerned with how wider, larger systems affect a particular situation, whilst considering the relationships between consistent parts of the system. Relationships between the environment and between those parts are in a constant state of flux and re-organisation and are non-uniform. Complexity theory therefore takes into account an individual’s interaction with the wider environment, and how they are simultaneously constrained and enabled by that environment.

We can see this in FE through the multiple and complex factors within the FE college environment which impact on each and every individual’s work role. For example, we can look to the local community and the impact of pressure on social housing, local job opportunities and benefits. These directly affect the wellbeing, attendance and potential qualification outcomes of each individual student but in many different ways. These factors are then intertwined with the actions within the roles of teachers, curriculum managers, and support staff and students who interact and who are working within the wider system of education and also the political and social systems that affect them.

Seeing the context of FE in this way helps us understand the real complexity of working in FE - the unpredictable and emotional labour of the work and the imperatives of managing the affectable elements of workload. Attention to these aspects of workload have the power to create significant positive effects on the wellbeing and resilience of a workforce who work on a daily basis in a highly complex, people centred environment.

All of this considered, and in my role as strategic lead for wellbeing and workload I am on the search for practical ways to support staff with these issues. I am currently working to reduce workload through the elimination of work-related tasks that are considered to be “non-value”. We have asked focus groups to identify work activities that do not add value to people or support the college in meeting its legal or regulatory responsibilities.

The findings showed that across all of the focus groups there were unidentified improvements in systems along with gaps in training, communication and unnecessary administration. It was also easy to see also that these issues exist at multiple levels - at individual, role, departmental, or organisational level. A systematic response to a systemic problem will involve triaging workload issues to the most appropriate lead at the loci of the issue, with monitoring and feedback loops built in for it to ensure lasting change and impact. The aim is to develop and build a system that is simple and solution focused - I am continually mindful of the overriding challenge to operate a system that in itself doesn’t create additional workload!


Association of Colleges. (2022). Attracting, Sustaining and Developing Middle Leaders in English Further Education. Available:

Mason, M. (2008). Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education. Wiley-Blackwell. Singapore.

O’Connell, B. (2005). Creating and Outstanding College. Nelson Thrones. Cheltenham. UK

Randle, K & Brady, N. (1997). Managerialism and Professionalism in the Cinderella Service. The Sociological Review. 47(3).

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.