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Why a lack of trust is a key issue in further education - Katie Stafford

31st August 2023

Katie Stafford, deputy principal at New City College: Hackney Campus and Research Further Scholar

I have spent most of the summer holidays reading and contemplating the issue of trust within the FE sector. It is the focus of my PhD study, and since the research is both self-led and very lengthy, it is a requirement that the topic surrounding the PhD is of substantial interest. So, trust within the FE sector has become my chosen academic subject “passion”.

I will give an example. Consider this common scenario:

You are a curriculum manager and you are attending a meeting to report the predicted outcomes for your department which is led by a senior manager. There are some areas of concern and you expect this to be a challenging discussion. You expect and trust, as per other similar meetings, that your line manager will work alongside you. You therefore plan to give an honest appraisal of the situation with some identified areas for improvement and areas of action for further discussion. However, on this occasion, the response is not as expected and your manager reacts badly. You are unable to articulate your action plan effectively and you leave the meeting feeling demotivated and incompetent.

What are the main features of this situation?

What are the broader potential impacts of this situation?

Why has this happened?

To explore this scenario further it may be useful to give some useful context.

During the immediate post-incorporation period, much of academic writing was extremely critical of the technocratic approach to the governance of the FE sector. Incorporation was driven by the government at the time, who seemed to have very little trust in local authorities and consequently, even less trust in college leaders to manage education in both an efficient and effective manner. Through incorporation, the government aimed to increase trust for themselves. A reduction in risk was achieved through tighter and more complex funding regimes and more scrutiny via audit and policy mechanisms, making the work of college leaders much more political and bureaucratic.

Later, into the 1990s, the concept of parental choice grew in political popularity and so the creation of an educational market place was facilitated through the increased use and availability of information technology, including the internet and mobile phones. The use of assessment data in this way has received much criticism, as O’Niell (2013) argues, the use of qualification outcome data to measure the effectiveness and quality of education is flawed. In the case of further education, outcome data is an inadequate articulation of the genuine progress of the students and therefore the true value that has been added to the young person by the college.

Central to the concept of trust is competence and reliability, the belief in another to do something and to do it well. It is very clear that the use of systems of accountability and marketisation infers a lack of trust in college leaders on these points. Avis (2003) spoke of the impact of neo-liberalised systems on the organisational cultures within further education colleges, commenting on the need to create trust-based working relationships in order to enable creativity and innovation as a source of collective problem solving. Recent commentary from senior leaders suggests that this feeling of not being trusted by government has not changed, with ever increasing complexities in funding and no reduction in the levels of audit and scrutiny over the past 20 years.

Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and organisational behaviour researchers have all studied the concept of trust. Whilst psychologists argue that trust is an internally mediated process, all agree that trust is experienced through social interactions between groups and individuals. Arguably, we are unable to form social relationships with the systems and policies themselves. The majority of us are limited in our ability to form social, professional relationships with ministers of state and civil servants. However, it could be agreed that all of these systems facilitated the communication direct from government to governing bodies and senior sector managers about what is expected. Trust as a form of reliance, means that funding, policies, data capture and audit prescribe what professional competence and therefore “trustworthiness” means to the government. In other words, technocratic methods of accountability are normalised and are transcended throughout the further education workplace. The feelings of distrust are an inescapable reality of the work. It is “baked” into the FE system.

In another view, Baier (1986:234) argues that trust is normal and expected. Along with others, she identifies that trust is a “norm” and one which allows both ourselves and society to function well. In her metaphor of trust as a climate and atmosphere, trust is described as being vital to our existence and something which is relied upon in order to function. Trust is something pure, not seen and taken for granted. Distrust, is not so. It is toxic to the atmosphere. Through my 18 years of working in the sector, I am drawn to Baier’s analogy. I recognise the impacts of trust and distrust on the experience of myself and those that work in the sector. Whilst many argue that trust is logical and transactional, others, such as Lahno (2001), argue that trust is both an emotion and an attitude; an outward reflection of our inner feelings and state of mind. Distrust therefore, directly impacts on our feelings and emotions.

In 2020, just before the pandemic, Stephen Exley in his report for the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) reported on the personal negative impact on senior college leaders from the national systems of regulation which control the FE sector. In the post-pandemic period, we are now experiencing a cost-of-living crisis and across the sector, there has been a huge spike in the numbers of colleagues and students reporting poor mental health and wellbeing. To add to the challenge, the number of staff vacancies is growing against a background of greater work flexibility and low unemployment in key vocational areas such as construction.

In order to sustain our colleges and continue high quality support to our students, we must ensure that our team members trust us to lead without fear of negative consequences on their self-image, status or career and are given the care needed in order to continue to perform and contribute to the mission through their job role against these challenging circumstances. We can do this through trusting professional relationships and resisting the urge to transfer the mistrust that is placed in us from government and to instead promote trust and performance through professional enquiry that is non-threatening and within secure and predictable workplace situations (Khan 1990) such as meetings.

As leaders, in order to generate genuine trust, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, yet strong. We must promote and demonstrate leadership values of consistency in compassionate and respect towards others. One, where we see strength in seeking support because this demonstrates our leadership competence. We can show that we are trustworthy because we are consistently open and curious in our dialogue with others.

In trusting others and being trusted we develop the skills of trust within the workplace in order to grow the potential of ourselves and others. In essence, we reclaim the educational space for ourselves, our teams, our students and the sector.

The key question is therefore, reflecting back on the scenario above, how could we make this situation more human?


Avis, J. (2003). Re-thinking Trust in a Performative Culture: The Case of Education. Journal of Education Policy. 18(3). pp315-332

Baier, A. (1986). Trust and Antitrust. The University of Chicago Press. 96(2). pp231-260

Exley, S. (2020). Shame or for Betterment. Regulation and Intervention in Further Education. Further Education Trust for Leadership.

Govier, T. (1998). Reasons for Trust and Distrust in Dilemmas of Trust. McGill-Queens University Press.

Lahno, B. (2001). On the Emotional Character of Trust. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 4(2). pp 171-189.

Onora O’Neill. (2013). Intelligent Accountability in Education. Oxford Review of Education. 39(1). pp 4-16