The Business of Business Planning

When I attended my first PGCE lecture, the head of programme offered us a warning.  “Teaching,” she said, “is no longer a vocation.  It is a business.”  It was a fair point.  After all, I had not left a lower paid job entirely out of the goodness of my heart.  Nevertheless, I became accustomed over the years to working with people who valued what they did for its own sake, and being managed by leaders who had spent years in the classroom and still felt affection for it.  Whether I worked in a local authority school, an academy or a faith school, I understood what everyone else’s job was, and they understood mine.  When I moved to a new school, I used to observe with interest what I thought of as the “teaching high watermark.”  That is: the least senior position at which teaching no longer occurs, even for cover. 

In my first school, everyone except the head and deputy had timetabled classes.  When that school went through a radical transformation (for the better), even the head picked up half an hour a day.  When I came to college, one of the first things I noticed was how low that watermark was.  It stops not far above the position of lecturer.  There are layers upon layers of managers who do not set foot in a classroom all year, and whole departments that have nothing to do with teaching.  In the upper strata they have almost no contact with students, or even lecturers.  At the very top sits, not a head teacher, but a “CEO.” Three months after joining the college, one member of my team did not yet know who this was.  I have never seen such clear blue water between teaching staff and a leadership team.   I am told by colleagues who have worked elsewhere that this is common.

Before looking at why I think this has happened, let me outline one reason this distance between teachers and leaders is a problem, although there are many.  Anyone who has attended an education conference will be able to visualise the following scene.  A funky looking expert, with glasses from the Matrix and a beard from Lord of the Rings takes the podium for his slot.  He extols a system of marking that involves group discussion, two pen colours, a box of stamps and an iPhone app.  It will empower your learners and motivate them, he says... IF it is applied properly. Whilst he talks, you wonder how to apply this properly with your sports class, right after they come in from a gym session.  What happens when the internet goes down?  What happens when they lose their pens and highlighter?  How long will this take?  That the speaker is intelligent and well-intentioned (and probably good company on a pub crawl) are not in doubt.  But years of comfortable inexperience stand between his ideas and the smell of twenty-five bodies packed into a hot room at the end of June.  Teaching a class acts as a sanity check against policies which are harmful, or simply a waste of time.  Those who teach regularly, seldom insist that every lesson needs to have a written plan.  Those who do not teach have a much harder time distinguishing between good pedagogical advice and passing fads, and if they are the decision makers in their schools and colleges, disenchantment and cynicism can set in. 

Now, it would be both lazy and unfair to claim that senior leaders are not working hard.  That is far from the truth.  My immediate line manager (who is just at the edge of the teaching watermark), works constantly through the evenings and the weekend.  Other managers at her level are under the same pressure, and most of them are willing to step in and do cover when necessary (although this is unheard of at the next level up).  I assume the managers above her are busy also.  However, “What exactly are they doing?” is a common question among new recruits, particularly those from secondary school, accustomed to seeing their head teacher and deputies on the corridors and in the classroom, keeping in touch with staff on the ground and working with them on behaviour and culture setting. 

So what exactly are they doing?  The answer seems to be:  business planning.  Colleges are businesses.  In fact, since 1992, they have been corporations.  The government funding model, which attempts to imitate free market conditions, generates an enormous amount of bureaucracy.  Teams must be employed and managed to handle this.  They must look for loopholes.  They must work with local businesses.  They must look for every opportunity to leverage money out of their premises.  They must keep an eye on their competitors, more so than schools.  Advertising needs attention.  In my previous school, the “marketing,” was handled by an old geography teacher who enjoyed photography – in college the marketing department employs as many staff as the engineering team.  All this results in a slick outward appearance, and that is necessary in this sector, but what is being missed? 

I won’t solely blame senior leadership teams – I think it has much to do with how colleges are funded and the sector managed.  The pressures to maintain a cash flow are real and it is no wonder they see that as their primary responsibility.  However, whilst recognising the time demands that SLT face, I would suggest popping the following activities (commonplace in schools) into the business plan.    – Take ten minutes in the morning to meet and greet students and staff.  - Spend an hour (or more!) a week walking round the college and dropping in to lessons. Ask lecturers, secretaries and caretakers how things are going. If this is a business, teaching is the product, and shouldn't the CEO want to see the finished product? - Use a CPD day to sit down with working committees of teaching staff.  Consult your own in-house experts.  Given a chance to voice their views and understanding, they may impress you.

Perhaps these practices are commonplace in other institutions.  Where this is so, I expect they are successful colleges and I would be interested to hear about them.  Even if FE is a business, it should be the business of education, not the business of business planning.