Leadership, further education and social justice

This research project aims to explore how further education leaders who have a self-professed history of commitment to social justice both at local level and more broadly, negotiate the current sectoral conditions. 

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Research background

Further education providers are often closely connected to local communities and as leaders see themselves as serving these local communities first and foremost. However, a range of external forces (curricula and funding changes as well as mergers and the changing landscapes of investment by local authorities) are impacting on this localised purpose and function.  Building on the notion of connective and altruistic leadership, this project teased out and expose the strategies drawn on by leaders to develop and sustain a values-driven approach and drive in the context of what can be viewed as a turbulent, instrumentalist agenda and landscape.

Research aims

Transformative leadership can be viewed as positioning centrally the needs of the ecologies within which further education institutes are situated and interacting in a critical and interrogative with the current further education system. The project gathered critical evidence about the impact of such values-driven approaches to leadership. 

Research methods 

Conducting in depth case studies with three further education leaders across the UK, the research was able to unearth recommendations on how to enact leadeship that is orientated towards achieving social justice. These case studies featured individuals across both adult learning institutions and a further education college.

Results and recommendations

To enable colleges to enact leadership that is orientated towards achieving social justice as defined in this report:

  • Funding: Funding needs to acknowledge and privilege colleges’ position within existing local ecologies. A clear justification and articulation of locally defined aims and demonstration of how these are being met should inform the funding regime. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of colleges to develop measures of the social benefits of further education. There is existing evidence of the importance of these benefits and new thinking needs to be taken at government level to find ways of recognising the wider social benefits colleges provide for society. That students with most needs (both educational and socio-economic) should have access to more funding, rather than less, as is currently the case, should be a fundamental principle of further education nationally.
  • Curriculum: A further education curriculum that is narrow and (only) vocational contributes to a socially divisive educational system with a worrying consequence of providing separate pathways for people from different social classes. When a divided and divisive curriculum (i.e. one that is divided along academic / vocational dichotomy) is imprinted with a recognised hierarchy of status that consigns people from a working class background to low status qualifications, then structures that contribute to this, especially if they are a feature of an educational marketplace, must be counteracted. Colleges need to cling on to their 16-19 ‘academic’ qualifications and / or consolidate their HE provision. Student biographies sit at the heart of any social justice curriculum. They are best activated as a resource within hybrid informal / formal (what Lefebvre would call ‘differential’) spaces. To draw on them requires teachers who empathic and skilled in managing educational relationships that are sincere, and caring and in which the teacher’s belief in the students fosters their self-belief and confidence. 
  • Governance: college governors need to balance the interests of local employers enshrined at incorporation and place much more emphasis on developing governing bodies that are truly representative of the communities they serve and who have a professional background in (further) education wherever possible. These socially situated knowledges and practices need to sit at the heart of college governance. This will enable a commitment to social justice to be anchored at the heart of college cultures and the decisions made around curriculum.
  • Trust: a college claiming to be committed to social justice is suffused with trust. Trust is the key condition that enables leadership at all levels of the organisation. Recognition of the whole teacher is required on the part of senior leadership teams: taking account of staff’s personal circumstances in the same way that teachers take account of students’ personal circumstances. A deep level of trust pays dividends and is essential in creating the conditions for authentic transformative leadership from staff. The interdependence between senior leaders and other staff
  • Temporality: time and its manipulation / compression – usually in the interests of efficiency and in particular through the current normative model of progress in schooling, appears to entrench social divisions and to brand many of our young people as failures at 16. Colleges have to work hard to restore students’ confidence because of this. We need to re-examine the way course length and funding interact so that it benefits students and enables colleges to address the damage done in their prior educational experiences.
  • Space: We need to maintain historical further education buildings. The emphasis of the last decade, articulated very eloquently in the Building the Colleges for the Future initiative (see Smith 2017A) appears to have placed an emphasis on promoting colleges as exciting forward-looking institutions focused on employability. However, these buildings cannot be allowed to replace the community venues that take teaching and learning to where it is often most needed. Travel-to-learn distances if great, come at the (social) cost of marginalisation.
  • History: colleges have rich histories that are deeply embedded in their local contexts. These reputations are in many cases connected to social justice. Often, these histories connect to particular sites and / or buildings. These buildings are an important feature in the cultural capital of any college. Like schools, libraries, houses, their age may mean they require substantial sums are needed to maintain them. Refurbishment and investment is preferable to total redevelopment and relocation. Or at least, it needs to be understood that total redevelopment may come at the cost of severing important connections to a valuable cultural and historical heritage that brings meaning to a college.
  • Locality: In order to enhance colleges’ ability to exercise leadership at every level of their organisations, we need to move away from talking about a 'further education sector'. It is an artificial and unhelpful mental construct that disguises the complexity and contextually-embedded nature of work in colleges and other providers. The establishment of new regional authorities appears to signal a retreat from the disabling centripetal direction of decision-making that has characterised the last twenty five years of marketised education. While these are early days, and these new structures need to be made to be democratically accountable, to respond to this new direction of travel.


Funder: Further Education Trust for Leadership

Funding: £66,000