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Train to retain: why developing your middle managers is the best investment you’ll make for the future of FE

2nd November 2022

Dr Bev Morris, Chief Executive, Marvellous Minds Training and Consultancy

Jon Thedham, Managing Director, Tdm Training Development and Marketing Ltd

Middle managers in Further Education are the golden thread between senior leaders, teachers, and learners. They are the eyes and ears of the organisation, translating policy into practice, and challenges into opportunities. They make things happen and they keep all parts of the organisation connected to each other by straddling the operational and strategic worlds. Without their expertise, knowledge, and skills, FE would collapse. So why is their professional development often an afterthought in organisations? Is it lack of funding or is it lack of foresight? Probably a combination of both and, like a lot of things in the FE sector, it has taken many years of gradual erosion to reach a point of crisis. The pandemic may well have brought that crisis to head.

Let’s be clear, middle managers have a tough job in tough circumstances. Reduced budgets, more responsibilities, changes to learner behaviour, increased complexities of dealing with employers, qualification frameworks and awarding organisations – everything about these roles has become more challenging in recent years and that was before the shock of the pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, a war in Europe, fuel poverty, global economic instability, and a surge in mental health needs for staff and students. So why do we continue to expect our best teachers and subject experts to simply step into a management role, facing all these challenges, without giving them the training and support to fulfil these roles competently and confidently? This seems like a false economy. The likelihood is that they will become stressed, burnt out, and overwhelmed as the demands of the role increase but the support to undertake it does not increase at the same rate. Quite simply put, your critical middle managers will become disillusioned and will leave without the right support.

Retaining teaching staff and managers is clearly becoming harder. The last FE Workforce Analysis (2021) showed that only 51% of FE teachers who started in 2016 were still teaching after 3 years while 68% of teachers who started in 2000 were still teaching after 3 years. This is a shocking and costly attrition rate which providers and the sector cannot afford. The impact on middle managers is twofold: there is instability in their teaching teams which destabilises plans and personnel budgets and managers who teach are frequently covering for absent team members. Research by the AoC, University of Nottingham and ILM in 2022 - Attracting, Sustaining and Developing Middle Leaders in English Further Education – picks up on many of these challenges and points to how much pressure middle managers are now under. From increased staff turnover to more challenging learner behaviour, from new ways of working as a result of COVID to managers coping with complex and demanding workloads, from a sector subject to constant policy change to a greater desire for an appropriate work-life balance, AoC recognises the multiple competing factors that make the middle-management role in colleges one of the most difficult roles in any education setting. Planned and sustained development opportunities is one way to address these problems supportively and with an eye to the future, and that’s why AoC has designed this cost-effective programme to support and develop middle managers at all stages of their career. A short-term invest will provide long-term returns, for individual managers and the whole college.

Forward-thinking leadership teams are now actively seeking ways to retain their excellent staff and to attract the very best new staff. Part of this thinking always includes innovative, high-quality and bespoke training and development opportunities. Offering last year’s solutions for today’s challenges is not the answer. The new AoC Early Career and Experienced Middle Managers programme seeks to value the existing knowledge and skills of managers and provide them with practical tools and techniques for a long and successful career. It is designed to develop core skills, such as critical reflection, self-awareness, resilience, emotional intelligence, reframing, and psychological safety that provide the toolkit that all middle managers need as well as offering the framework for being change ready throughout their careers.

Great leaders and managers keep their staff. Why? Because they put the effort into being great to work for and with.

CMI (2021) research found that 85% of employees stated that a good manager was important for their workplace happiness, while 38% said they have stayed in a job longer than they intended because of a good manager. We can’t underestimate the power of middle managers to ensuring that teaching staff and other personnel feel valued and supported enough to stay with us even in these exceptionally challenging times.

So, train to retain: when your middle managers are trained to perform to their full potential, they will ensure that the best staff around them stay in post and the ones who need support receive it. This leads to a more consistent, cohesive and collaborative working environment where middle managers enable everyone to thrive.

Find out more about AoC’s Early Career and Experienced Middle Managers Programme or email for more advice.