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Mind the Gap: the future demand for leadership in FE

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Mind the Gap: the future demand for leadership in FE

In 2018, over 50 colleges appointed new Principals and CEOs, an unprecedented turnover of almost 20% across the sector. What does this mean for the supply of future college leaders?

The pace of change in the FE sector has been remarkable in recent years, and this is reflected in the level of turnover in college leadership roles. In 2018, an unprecedented number of new Principals and CEOs took up post and, in the first three months of this year, over 20 colleges have appointed new leaders.

The potential candidate pool at this top level has been depleting rapidly, raising a question as to where the next tranche of leaders will come from.  Many vacancies are coming about through retirements or individuals transitioning to other sectors and these are at a more rapid rate than aspiring leaders are developing and progressing, hence a net drain of top talent from the sector.  This has several far-reaching implications for the sector as a whole.

Firstly, candidates have become more selective; whereas they have always reflected carefully on a college’s fit rather than apply for roles on a serial basis, there now appears to be an extra level of risk aversion and most will consider at length the likely repercussions of a college’s journey and strengths on their own future.  The number of applications for Principal roles is likely to be smaller; whereas in the relative recruitment heyday of five years ago it wasn’t unusual to receive in excess of 30 applications, today’s selection panels are likely to have a choice of far fewer candidates and face competition from other processes at the same time.

Secondly, a smaller candidate pool and increased competition create remuneration challenges, which give rise to fiscal and ethical dilemmas in the current climate. On the one hand, there may be a need to position salaries at the higher end of the pay scale to attract the best talent – this is a no-brainer for many commercial businesses. However, colleges’ appetites and abilities to do this are obviously limited by the current financial pressures in the sector, as well as the recently introduced Remuneration Code and ethical concerns about pay being reflective of – or at least sensitive to – opportunities within their local communities.

So, what should colleges consider when planning to recruit a new CEO/Principal, given that demand may soon be outweighing supply? Firstly, whether it might be feasible to consider an appointment from outside FE and what the potential risks and rewards could be in this. Given the current challenges in the sector it would need to be weighed carefully in terms of a college’s size, structure and focus, strength of existing leadership team and governing body, and commitment to support and development.  But with a potential sector leadership shortage from within FE, we need to be aware of the options, perhaps considering which backgrounds might have the best synergy to successfully transfer into FE and looking at a holistic way of supporting and developing individuals into the sector.

A sector-wide commitment to succession planning and development is critical, to ensure that we are continuously nurturing and preparing our next generation of leaders. There are some excellent development programmes available, through AoC, ETF and a number of other training partners. But it’s also key to constantly be stretching, developing and providing growth opportunities as part of people’s day to day roles, ensuring that they are exposed to cross-college remits and taking responsibility for key strategies.  I will pick up more on this area in my next blog, as it’s such a key element of the sector’s success.

At AoC we are proactive in supporting governing bodies to make the most impactful appointments and our in-depth executive FE recruitment knowledge and access to AoC experts make us adept in sourcing and assessing the best talent. However, a whole sector approach to progression and development will be critical in ensuring that this talent is being replenished and that there is a supply of strong individuals to lead colleges to successful and sustainable futures.

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