FE Leadership and ethics in a time of precarity – an invite




Ethics and Leadership in FE

Research Presentation, Tuesday 10th May, 2.00pm – 4.00pm, Room G20, 55 Gordon Square, London


A good metaphor ‘makes us stop in our tracks and examine it. It offers us a new awareness’. In this sense metaphors are ‘category errors with a purpose, linguistic madness with a method’. Metaphors must be approached and understood as if they were true at the same time that we are aware that they are fictitious – created and artificial.

Alvesson & Spicer (2010)

In this seminar we aim to present initial and tentative conclusions based on research undertaken between June 2015 – March 2016 with FE college leadership teams.  This is an ongoing research project for which data is still being generated. What is presented here are some emerging themes and ideas.

The project has explored how FE managers retain ethical integrity – a frequently neglected area of leadership research and policy thinking that goes beyond narrow considerations of competence. We wanted to understand the practical strategies FE leadership teams deploy to enact their ethical values within the institutions they lead against a context of precarity when reductive policies appear to narrowly define the range of choices open to them.

While we did not start the project with a fixed sense of what ethics means – seeking instead to allow those conceptions to emerge from what people said, we broadly conceive of ethics as incorporating: Conduct – what actions are regarded as right and wrong?  The good society – in what kind of society do we want to live? Character – what moral qualities are regarded as good and bad?  Relationships – what responsibilities attach to people’s relationships with each other, individually and in groups?

Several interesting and unexpected ideas have emerged around this. Our preference it to frame the issues in terms of leadership metaphors. This is a well-rehearsed and accessible approach to understanding the complexities of organisational life.

A few of the metaphors we suggest include:

  • The Steward
  • The Banker
  • The Philanthropist and
  • The Entrepreneur

Each of these leadership metaphors suggest particular ethical approaches to FE.

During the Institute of Education seminar we would like to present some of the data that has led us in this direction and to invite a critical overview of our approach and tentative conclusions.

Further Education Trust for Leadership, Ethics and Leadership in FE Research Team

Dr Carol Azumah Dennis and Elizabeth Walker

If you would like to attend or require any further information, please contact

carol dot dennis at hull dot ac dot uk


Do the Right Thing

One thing that strikes me as a chat with college leaders and management teams,   reading and re-reading the transcripts is the popularity of that phrase – ‘Do the right thing’.  It seems to have come up in some form or another in almost every visit so far.

It reminds me of Mookie, a fictional character in Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing. For him, the right thing was throwing a wheelie bin through the window of a pizzeria in a Brooklyn neighbourhood. The action either started or ended an act of violence (depending on your view). Spike Lee is a brilliant story teller, and once drawn into the film you can’t help but agreeing that Mookie did indeed Do the Right Thing. This act of violent protest was the only available means Mookie had to say: no!

It’s odd then to hear the phrase used by college leaders again and again. For Mookie doing the right thing was an act of protest, for college leaders it seems to play out in different ways, it seems to represent

  • A starting point of students needs as the basis for curriculum design
  • A return to first principles in decision-making that cuts through policy obfuscation
  • A challenging form of accountability to which the college is happy to answer
  • A justification for unpopular decisions

For example, what does ‘Do the Right thing’ mean here?

We did a broad consultation, we explained the reason why we were having to increase the teaching load, and that was fine. It went through without a problem.  And since then, we have done a couple of rounds of voluntary redundancy, which has assisted, and last year we did a big reorganisation around the management of the college, so in effect going from 32 middle managers to 18.  But again, it was the right thing to do.  I think we are now better positioned as we move further ahead.  I think we have got a good group of people there now, looking at how they can deliver further savings. 

College 5

There’s no point in the likes of me assuming any sort of moral high ground here. There are moments when I am glad I am a minion. And, once all other conditions are accepted, doing a really hard thing in an ethical (consultative) way might be the only alternative.  The hardest decision I make is whether to have a skinny cappuccino or full-cream latte. But I can’t help thinking that despite the earnestness with which this colleague has approached his work – a broader ethical question is somehow missed.

I am here drawn to Professor Helen Colley’s question: What are the consequences of what we do for teachers, managers and students? What happens – to well being, to quality and professional selves when 18 managers are required to do work that was previously done by 32? How can we assert the ethical purpose of what we do? How can we ensure that pedagogic values takes precedence over economistic value?

Or more pertinently – How can we say no to the policies which privilege value over values?

After all, as we are all finding out as we watch junior doctors trying to protect our NHS, the litmus test of a profession is its capacity to say: NO!



A college culture of engineered fluffiness.


Magritte’s painting challenges audiences to make sense of an apparent contradiction. If this is not a pipe, then what is it? The answer is quite straightforward – it is not a pipe it is a rendering of a pipe.

What happens when someone tries to ‘capture and freeze’ a culture – to (re) present an image of a culture of which they are part: to list the things that it is and things it is not. To accept this self-description as meaningful is like accepting an account of water offered by a fish. It is never what it says it is. What it says it is is always and can only ever be a re-rendering. What it (the fish) notices is never the most significant or interesting or thoroughly engrained part of that culture. It is not what a city dweller who has never experienced water would notice. For a fish, there is no such thing as wetness.

Nonetheless – in terms of organisational Culture – to have agreed principles of communication is not a bad idea. It certainly ticks the OfSTED box. What is interesting is why is it necessary. I only need to be reminded to be ‘honest’ if my tendency is to be dishonest! This is not to say that the reminder is not a good thing; it is to say it is a curious thing.

With culture it is better to never interpret (or explain): experience, experiment. Deleuze, 1995, p. 87

And yet, here I am trying to analyse – to capture and freeze  – to (re)present,  render a culture. But, after a day in their company – which I have lived and relived through listening to interviews time and time agin – usually while waling to a from work –  what is most striking about Borchester College is the ‘culture’. It reminds me of the descriptors of outstanding colleges provided by OfSTED in ‘How Colleges Improve.’ The report is interested in colleges making the transformation from good to outstanding – or from outstanding to even better.

It identifies ‘effective leadership’ as a key determinate in promoting improvement. In one of the many colleges they cite as exemplary:

Staff are ‘encouraged to be innovative, are *proud to work at the college* and are enthusiastic about their commitment to the success of their learners. (OfSTED 2012)

In another college exemplar of an outstanding college, the style of the principal is described as autocratic. The staff in the college are – according the the report – in awe of their leader rather than fearful. Staff moved around the college and

‘felt empowered and proud to work at these colleges, describing it as hard work but rewarding’. (OfSTED 2012)

I think managers feel proud to work for Borchester College. This is what comes across in several the comments they make. They emphasised in several ways and on several occasions how very well prepared they are for the oncoming FE storm. At times this upbeat ‘bring it on’ preparedness might well go against the grain of their natural disposition; but while organisational grumbles can deplete the energy, they can also be about building alliances and letting off steam. Nonetheless, Borchester College has done well – over the years. It has predicted where policy in the sector is going and planned how to greet the inevitable.

These words were not spoken by a single person but are a composite f different strands of conversation that I have made fit into a single dialogic structure. 

I think as an organisation we are in a pretty good position. Our principal, Sally, is really forward thinking and so she is well on board with the seven or eight colleges who are part of BIS strategic regional review – I think it’s called the Appletown network that you heard her speak about – so she is already talking to all of those colleges.

I think [previous and current senior managers] saw an awful lot coming of what we have experienced now and, in all honesty, I don’t think we would have been quite the college we are if we… well, we are currently in a very positive position, in a very tumultuous time for FE. Now I don’t think there are many colleges nationally, like Sally said, we did seem to be sat at the AOC last week thinking, well, everyone was full of doom and gloom. And we are thinking dare we even mention that we kind of … we’re not, we’re okay about this.

Financially, we’re in a good position. Financially, structurally, strategically… we have a good grasp on where we are.


OfSTED. 2012. “How Colleges Improve: A Review of Effective Practice: What Makes an Impact and Why.” HMSO, London.

Looking for a Research Assistant 0.4 FTC a University of Hull: join us


Research Assistant
Reference: IL0033
Campus: Hull
Faculty/Area: Faculty of Education
Department: Educational Studies
Salary: £26,274 to £31,342 per annum pro rata
Fixed Term
Post Type: Part Time
Closing Date: Wednesday 14 October 2015
Research Assistant – Further Education Trust for Leadership – Leadership for Learning – ethical practice (40%)

You do not have to live in Hull to apply for this job. It is possible to negotiate   working from home and attending weekly meetings via   Skype. 


The Faculty of Education is a research-based centre for learning and teaching. It has a national and international reputation for excellence and a particular commitment to serving the educational needs of the local region. We are seeking to appoint a Research Assistant in the Department of Education Studies, for 10 months, commencing 1 October 2015 (or as soon as possible thereafter) to 31 July 2016. Hours per week will vary according to the needs of the project but will be in the region of 14 hours a week, to a maximum of 550 hours. This is an opportunity for an early career researcher to join an established department which is committed to research excellence.

The post-holder will work with the Project Leader on the Leadership for Learning – Critical Practice Leadership Project. This project will explore and develop ethical leadership practice in the UK, working in partnership with UK and European FE skills partners. A particular interest is how FE managers retain ethical integrity. The purpose is to elaborate upon leadership practice that articulates, enacts and embodies a consistent expansive ethical stance.

The Project will be conducted in three stages including a literature review, ten case studies and a group presentation / professional conversation. You will provide support for all three stages of the project. You will have excellent time management and communication skills, be able to work to deadlines and function effectively under pressure. You must be proficient in Microsoft Office and be comfortable working in multi-modal formats including blogs, video and podcasts. As an outcome of the project, you will be expected to write at least one paper for jointly authored publication.

To discuss this role informally, please contact Dr Azumah Dennis (Lecturer, Education Studies), T 01482 466930, E carol.dennis@hull.ac.uk

For information about the department visit www2.hull.ac.uk/education

Email details to a friend
Apply Online

Bingo! Nine UK Case Study Colleges – sorted!


I now have my nine UK case studies lined up and over the next term will be conducting research visits. Hopefully our new Research Assistant will be in post by the latest November and will either conduct or accompany me on these research visits. It’s quite an exciting time which will take me across three of the four ‘Home International” countries of Scotland, Wales and England.

The literature review (FE and Leadership: an Ethical Re-reading) that has emerged from this project will (hopefully) be published by the London Review of Education or if not them then another journal once I get feedback. My analysis develops the idea of ‘loss’ . That is, I explore the extent to which successive years of policy discourse exclusively valuing the instrumental dimensions of education has resulted in an erosion of its ethical core. A sensibility or at least a language – one in which educational value is premised on its social purposes – has been all but lost. The argument for (or indeed against) education as liberation has not been part of a discourse which has simply focused on concerns such as quality, professionalism, efficiency … all of which work within a particular world view – one which does not consider educational purpose – only how we can do it better.

This Literature Review sits at the back of my empirical research. It is quite possible that once I get out there talking to people I find that my mind is changed. That what appears as a plausible re-reading of the literature does not equate to a plausible reading of the data generated. Central to my argument is that the busyness of institutional survival means that FE leaders are simply unable to attend to what matters in education, its purpose, its shape, its capacity to change lives. That beneath the managerial triumvirate of efficiency, economy and effectiveness … the ontology of education is altered. Or, if not altered – at least denied existence.

The outcome is:

  • a) a shattering of the illusio of post-16 educational leaders (Colley, 2012) and
  • b) the deprivation of a language with which to speak about what really matters in post-16 education
    • it’s precise purpose;
    • the extent to which a personal educational gain contributes towards a collective social democratic good;
    • the ‘ought’ question in education;
    • and importantly, the question of hope.

So my visits will find a way to explore these issues to find out if, where and how they feature in the FE College Leaders’ discourse. I like structure when I think about these things. I am yet to develop my interview protocols. But, to guide my thinking a can develop questions that illicit a view on the above and sees out places where they might be written.

Towards an ethical audit

Ball’s (2005) approach to ethical audit is interesting and useful here and offers some valuable pointers for how the work might unfold.

He for example, attempt to evaluate privatisation through an ethical lens. Clearly privatisation is not my specific interest but his technique is worth consideration. His analysis of policy ethics, interrogates the demoralising intentions of policy architects. Policies which re-work the purposes and motivations of educational leaders – demanding such thing as entrepreneurism, competitiveness and being business-like. Join other words, what are their ethical effects.

This leads to the identification of ethical effects, what ethical spaces and ethical clusters – goals, obligations and dispositions – are collectively produced to form an ethical common-sense.

The three most frequently cited ethical theories:

  • consequentialism
  • deontology and
  • virtue theory

are interesting here.

Inspired by Ball (2005) it might be possible to use these as a heuristic tools to provide a framework for generating data. Philosophy as a discipline has informed education (as has sociology) but both have been inflected by their own disciplinary interests and – as I argue in my Literature Review paper – scholarship in education has not been fulsomely informed by a philosophy of ethics. The co-relationships between education and ethics has not been attended by a substantive and enclosed body of theoretical reflection, a connected scholarly hotrod with its own interpretive problems, distinct concepts and hotly contested succession of turns and isms.

But, an ethical audit that uses the three (I accept simplified possibly to the point of distortion, to enable my own understand and ease of use).

Consequentialism, deontology and virtue theory – allow some discussion of what makes something right / wrong, good / bad. They may lead to radically incommensurate conclusions – something is both good and bad or may expose to the weakness of ethics to identify what is actually valuable about education.

Consequentialism – analyses impact, considering who benefits and who is harmed. It can be quite tricky extracting this information — not least of all because causal connections are not always immediately clear, they are obscured or diffuse.

some possible questions this generates: 

  1. Do you think it matters that government policy focusses so relentlessly on the economic benefits of education?
  2. Does austerity lead to leaner and more efficient and more focussed institutions?
  3. How do the local community view the college?
  4. What’s your feeling about the future of FE – as an individual college and as a sector?

Deontology – focusses on a sense of duty and of limits. This implies considering what research participants feel obligated to consider and what they wold view as being off limits. The justifications for these approaches are not couched in terms of consequences or cost / benefit analysis, but rather duty / purpose of role etc.

some possible questions this generates:

  1. What in your view is the colleges primary role in relation to a) government policy b) the local community?
  2. To whom are you accountable – I mean here legal institutional accountability – but also other accountabilities – ethical accountability – democratic accountability?
  3. What are the aspects of your role do you consider most important; least important; most time consuming; the greatest consumer but least beneficial use of time.
  4. Do you take the job home with you?

Virtue theory – considers questions of ought, an ought that is beyond a disaggregated study of the specific merits of particular actions. It instead rests of approval and disapproval of character traits asking what traits should be considered as worthy?

some possible questions this generates:

  1. What does it take a lead a successful college such as this?
  2. Are there any issues (regarding policy) over which you would resign?

These are quite big questions to ask and expect a thought through answer to at short notice, but my preference is always to get a ‘from the hip response’. If that response is – I have no idea, that’s ok. Equally, if they are seen by research participants who’ve had a chance to consider them, this is also ok.

I’m now looking forward to getting these dates in my diary and spending the next few months rushing u and down the M1 


Colley, H. (2012). Not learning in the workplace: austerity and the shattering of illusio in public service work. Journal of Workplace Learning24(5), 317-337.

Cribb, A., & Ball, S. (2005). Towards an ethical audit of the privatisation of education. British Journal of Educational Studies, 53(2), 115-128.

Post-16 educational leadership: an ethical re-reading

I have just drafted and sent a paper – tentatively entitled: Post-16 educational leadership: an ethical re-reading to a journal. The first proper ‘output’ for the FETL project.

Come September, I’ll be ready to leave the library and start talking to colleagues in the sector.