Leadership and the quality of teaching and learning in FE

What is the relationship between leadership and improving teaching and learning? And what is the best way to systematically improve teaching quality in further education (FE)? This Further Education Trust for Leadership funded project identifies how leadership practices produce the best outcomes for students and offers recommendations for FE institutions. 

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Research background

The FE sector has endured one of the most challenging and turbulent periods in its history of late. With FE the only part of the education budget to have experienced year-on-year cuts since 2010, the financial position of the sector has worsened considerably in the last decade. Combined with the instability caused by relentless policy reform, a period of unprecedented marketisation and high-stakes inspection and accountability systems, it is perhaps unsurprising that these factors have led to what Keep (2018) describes as the ‘perfect storm’ for FE, with the future shape and direction of the sector looking uncertain.

In light of these adversities, it is all the more remarkable then that FE continues to deliver a high level of quality in teaching and learning in the majority of its providers. However, what is not yet fully understood is what the relationship is between leadership and improving teaching and learning and how leadership makes or fails to make a difference. This research project emerged in response to these questions, to address these gaps in knowledge in the context of the wider FE backdrop.

Research aims

Between February 2018 and January 2019, the BCU based research team conducted this independent research study to look into the role of leadership in prioritising and improving teaching and learning in FE. The study aimed to fill the gap in knowledge and research relating to the interface between leaders’ strategic thinking, its application at an operational level and how leadership understandings and practices connect to successful outcomes in FE teaching and learning. The study was specifically aimed at investigating situated understandings and practices of leadership in improving and prioritising teaching and learning at an organisational level.

Research methods

The research question for this study was:

What do leaders in further education do to create and sustain an organisational culture that prioritises the continuous improvement of teaching and learning?

This project explored the relationship between leadership and improvements in teaching and learning in FE. It examined the interface between strategic thinking in leadership, its application at an operational level and how this connects to outcomes in teaching and learning. In doing so, it also investigated how the impact and effectiveness of these activities are monitored and captured.

The research took a mixed-methods case study approach, involving three FE providers across England, followed by a national roundtable discussion with FE leaders and managers. This designed was underpinned by our recognition of the importance of involving FE practitioners as well as leaders and managers to research with them leadership understandings and practices.


Key findings:

  • Improving teaching and learning is about creating an environment in which collegial interaction can flourish.
  • Teaching staff are best placed to improve teaching and learning by identifying and targeting their own professional needs.
  • Leadership approaches to improving teaching and learning need to actively involve those that teach, drawing on their expertise and experience.
  • Senior leaders and managers have an important role to play in establishing the conditions in which this can take place.
  • FE providers need to view and duly construct improvements to teaching and learning as a long-term narrative that unfolds incrementally and transcends the straitjacket of annualised funding arrangements and the omnipresent spectre of Ofsted inspections.

Implications and recommendations:

  • The integrated, three-pronged model of leadership based on fundamental trust and mutual synergy between SLT, middle management and staff works better. 
  • Reconceptualising leadership so that teaching and learning is the focal point must incorporate substantial ownership of methods/strategies, authority and ultimate responsibility to be devolved to staff. 
  • Visionary, courageous leadership that challenges Ofsted inspection regimes and opts for long-term, bottom-up, integrated growth pays off. 
  • Change in culture – high expectations, ambition, growth mindset, aspiration, motivation must equally drive teachers, learners and senior managers. 
  • Communicating the message of having high standards/expectations pays off. This also connects to the underlying purposes of education as an antidote to a marketised agenda.
  • Financial pressures resulting from enhanced marketisation/commodification must be challenged collectively.
  • Stability is a key platform for improvement.


O’Leary, M., Smith, R., Cui, V., and Dakka, F. (2019) “The role of leadership in prioritising and improving the quality of teaching and learning in further education”, online: https://fetl.org.uk/publications/the-role-of-leadership-in-prioritising-and-improving-the-quality-of-teaching-and-learning-in-further-education/. 


  • President of FETL, Dame Ruth Silver, stated that ‘This report has made a serious and substantial contribution to our understanding of the complex relationship between leadership, teaching and learning in further education and has made a big impact on thinking and practice across the sector.’ (June 2019)
  • The Association of Colleges requested 20 copies of the report for those involved in the Independent Commission on The College of the Future, chaired by Sir Ian Diamond just days after its publication.
  • Leaders and key stakeholders across the further education sector have commented on the quality of the research and usefulness of the report.
  • Coverage in National Media: ‘Collaboration more useful than Ofsted, say FE teachers’, by Julia Belgutay, TES Online, 6th June 2019: https://www.tes.com/news/collaboration-more-useful-ofsted-say-fe-teachers


Funder: Further Education Trust for Leadership
Funding: £59,000
Time scale: February 2018 – February 2019