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How can we support Programme Leaders during a pandemic?

16 Nov 2020 | Dr Catriona Bell Dr Catriona Bell shares her reflections on how an Academic Leadership Programme has helped to support Scottish Programme Leaders during Covid-19. The programme team applied their key learning from this to develop a new online leadership programme that can offer support and development to Programme Leaders going forwards.

It’s been a very tough year for Programme Leaders (as well as many other colleagues). They are critical stakeholders in the Student Experience, the key translators of institutional policy into practice, and they are frequently the ‘Chief Firefighter’ for a degree programme team. The buck stops with them in terms of both student facing issues and the quality of degree programme – and tensions between these responsibilities are likely to be greater than ever in this peri-COVID world. At this point in the semester, after nine months of running at ‘full tilt’, many Programme Leaders may be feeling exhausted and looking for support during what may have been one of the most challenging periods in their careers.

The last eight months has been firefighting: Leadership training has been invaluable!”

Scottish Academic Leadership Programme 2020 participants

I have been fortunate to work with two outstanding colleagues and a fantastic cohort of participants on our Scottish Academic Leadership Programme (SALP) during 2020. Our programme started as planned in January 2020 with monthly face-to-face sessions for Programme Leaders from across our Scottish member institutions, and we had everything neatly planned out for six monthly modules. However, like most colleagues, our best laid plans needed a serious rethink in March when the full impact of COVID-19 became apparent.

At that point, we weren’t certain whether SALP participants would have either the time or the bandwidth to continue to engage with the programme, as they were obviously engrossed in moving their own degree programmes online and supporting both their students and their programme teams. We therefore canvassed their opinion, ‘Would they like the programme to continue, and if so, what format would work best for them?’ The resounding response was ‘yes’, and that a combination of asynchronous and synchronous content was preferred (with no synchronous content in July to allow for very well deserved annual leave).

My co-facilitators Pauline Hanesworth (from Scotland’s Rural College) and Angela Vickerstaff (from Nottingham Trent University) and I therefore undertook a rapid online pivot of the programme, and we relaunched the remaining four online modules between May and August 2020.

The learning curve throughout this process was a steep but rewarding one, and SALP participants were extremely generous with their feedback and reflections on the programme. One of the key benefits that they identified was the element of peer support that the SALP programme and participants offered them, enabling them to share common challenges and solutions at a time of crisis, and many commented that the cross-institutional and cross-disciplinary network was critical to this success.

They also commented that the SALP programme provided opportunities to:

  • ‘lift their heads’, to look beyond their programme, their institution and their daily COVID ‘firefighting’ challenges;
  • engage with an online programme as participants, with several commenting that this helped to give them a ‘Student Perspective’ of online learning;
  • focus on their own professional development and approaches to leadership;
  • develop skills and understanding of leadership styles to help them work with senior colleagues – influencing without authority (at a time of crisis) was a key theme;
  • consider and discuss new approaches to embedding ‘Students as Partners’ approaches into their programme design, delivery and evaluation (which was now more important than ever).
Thanks to the skills I have learnt through this programme I feel that I have been able to bring my team together and improve our focus and effectiveness (even in the face of a pandemic).
I have also found it really useful to know more about the many different leadership styles that are out there (that I encounter with different colleagues).”

Scottish Academic Leadership Programme 2020 participant

Furthermore, recent discussions with senior leaders in our member institutions have identified the need to provide support for Programme Leaders, particularly during these challenging times. To date, however, key barriers to engaging with leadership programmes have included budget and time away from their campus and programme.  The SALP team has therefore taken key learning from our experience with pivoting the SALP programme online to design a flexible, accessible and cost effective online leadership programme which is called Enhancing Programme Leadership and launches in January 2021.

We have also considered approaches adopted in our other leadership programmes such as the Aurora programme, and hope that institutions may be able to send a cohort of their Programme Leaders on this new programme with the aim of developing a critical mass of expertise which can then be brought back to their institution to help to establish or develop a Programme Leaders Network. Institutions may also like to consider identifying a Programme Leader Sponsor or Champion, to support the development of their institutional network, and to feed into support and succession planning for their Programme Leaders.

We therefore hope that this programme will provide an opportunity for colleagues to lift their heads from their daily firefighting, to compare notes with colleagues from other institutions, and develop a new network (both for ideas and support) to help sustain them through the rest of the 20-21 academic year and beyond.

Dr Catriona Bell (PhD, PFHEA, NTFS) is Senior Adviser in Learning and Teaching at Advance HE and co-facilitator of the Scottish Academic Leaders Programme.

Enhancing Programme Leadership is an online programme designed to develop the skills and capabilities of leaders of teaching and learning in their institution at a time when they may be new to leadership, or looking to gain confidence in their leadership skills. The programme starts on 14 January 2021, find out more and book your place here.

Aurora is Advance HE's leadership development initiative for women. It is run as a unique partnership bringing together leadership experts and higher education institutions to take positive action to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the sector. Find out more here. 


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