Mission Possible

The positive attitudes and emotions of staff are vital to the success of FE organisational statements, writes Richard Evans

Organizational statements, often grandiosely called missions and visions, abound these days. Colleges are no exception to this trend. Each wants to broadcast its purpose to potential students and employers by way of a snappy, eye-catching statement or ‘artefact’. By an artefact I mean something expressed in words and made public, or indeed accountable.

However, we need to reflect on what these artefacts really mean to the staff, students and all the other users of the organization. The trouble with such statements is that it is difficult to convince people that they are vital and that they make connections between the purposes of different people: a population of learners and sponsors and a population of professionals which make up a learning organization. It is well known ‘that the divide between rhetoric and reality is often both wide and deep’.

Reading recent Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) and Ofsted inspection reports, one can detect issues associated with mutual understanding and ownership of an institution’s mission and the policies that they purport to operate. The development, acceptance and implementation of an artefact, whether it be a mission or a policy statement, requires wide-ranging consultation and involvement of all the people who use the college’s services and products. Mutual understanding of its purpose and its content is essential in order for it to be effective and owned by all. But for it to be truly effective, other elements must be embraced by the users. A helpful listing of these elements can enable monitoring of the artefact to be undertaken:

Artefact (eg. mission statement, a policy statement)

  • Mindset
  • Behaviour
  • Emotion.

All the elements are linked and influence each other, in some cases negatively and destructively. It is the way that these elements interact with each other that determines the successful operation of the artefact. Each element must positively reinforce and affirm the validity of the artefact. The artefact means nothing if it is not supported by a positive mindset, appropriate behaviour and the right emotional framework. Agreeing with the artefact, or signing up to it, requires the support of all the other elements or dimensions that will reflect the commitment of the users to the artefact and its purpose and for the wellbeing, not only of themselves, but of the institution.

Sadly, the current climate in further education is not conducive to this positive overall reinforcement of a number of colleges’ policies or, indeed, their mission. The unsatisfactory way in which the Further Education (FE) teachers’ contracts of employment matter has been handled over the past two years has created a very hostile and negative environment in the minds of many teachers. If teachers feel a sense of grievance, this can undermine, weaken or indeed destroy many of the colleges’ policies. Understandably many teachers’ current behaviour, mindset and emotional states would most certainly have a negative impact as a result of the contracts fiasco.

A few examples might assist to illustrate this difficulty: The college’s mission is an artefact, articulating the institution’s purpose – its identity and its direction. At present, many missions make statements which question traditional practices, new methods of curriculum delivery, an increased focus on the learner. Learner-centredness appears to put the traditional teachers’ role on the line. Many teachers feel threatened and with the prospects of their status being relegated. But it surely is not about a power struggle, it is about a sympathetic re-engineering of the whole relationship and about shared ownership of the learning process. Colleges must recognize the tension and paradox. If a particular artefact concerns providing the tools for the self-directed learner this requires the teacher to be less self-directed in one sense. Their assertion of what should be ‘known’, or how it should be ‘taught’, the ‘right’ way to do things, is no longer valid.

Similar tensions exist with the colleges’ policies, say, on equal opportunities, staff development and guidance. It is fine to have a policy statement, but it means little if it is not positively reinforced by the other three elements. Equal opportunities implementation has sadly regressed over the past few years, following a great deal of Government legislation. The gains made on this important matter over the past decade seem now to be increasingly marginalized. Colleges committed to embedding equal opportunities into their culture are finding it difficult to sustain, let alone move forward.

Staff development policies are now calling for new perspectives which put the organization’s goals and business plans at the forefront within which the individual member of staff has to fit. The tension between personal/individualistic needs/aspirations and the organization are now far more manifest. The behaviour and mindset of staff now are more openly challenged by the organization’s assertion of its identity.

Guidance is increasingly becoming more important because of the funding regimes and the need to improve retention and achievement of the learner. The acknowledged role of guidance also subverts the old mindsets and assumed behaviours. It requires the recognition that to benefit the learners, the ownership of the professional role has to be shared between the teacher and guidance professionals.

The skill of college managers is to recognize the subtle connections between what the institution wants and the way it is received and understood by the staff and students. Any artefacts must be developed by wide-ranging consultation. What is more, staff must be supported in all ways possible to establish the positive mindset behaviour and emotional commitment to it.

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