With a number of principal appointments to have hit the FE Week headlines over the summer, Sue Pember looks at the issues all governors need to consider when looking for a new leader.

College governors feel that they have the biggest impact when they are appointing a new principal.

When I was appointed as a principal, it was a two-day process, including several interviews, presentations and an evening reception for stakeholders.

The whole college was involved in one way or another. The process felt robust, rigorous, fair and transparent — although I may have thought differently if I wasn’t the successful candidate. In those days there was a blueprint that governors stuck to which included establishing a sub-committee to oversee the process. They would be responsible for national adverts, interview packs, establishing a long list, references and background checks, and shortlisting candidates.

Governors do need to ensure the college has a senior leader and an accounting officer, but they shouldn’t feel rushed

They would also host the two-day interview programme with governors, staff and other stakeholders, with a small group of candidates taken forward to the last day. The sub-committee then made recommendations to the full board which decided on the appointment. The blueprint was enshrined in the Articles of Association, which provided the statutory framework, and the updated version in 2008 set out the expectations.

The Education Act 2012 relaxed many of the requirements, but most colleges have yet to change their Instrument and Articles, so the 2008 version still stands. The process has served FE well and allowed good candidates to rise through the ranks, while not being closed to those (like me) who came up through a local authority route. This also helped to ensure equality of opportunity, which in turn led to more women being appointed.

It is for the college clerk and HR team to set out what governors need to consider in appointing a new principal. This starts with the pros and cons of whether to run the process internally or externally, and whether to commission full or partial support from an external agency. Keeping the process in-house is sometimes seen as the cheapest option, but that is often not the case. Recruitment takes time and eats up internal resources which are needed elsewhere and so this is a false economy in what is an important investment in the college’s future.

The most important element is determining the skills and behaviours needed from the new principal to take the college on to the next stage. This is may not
provide a clone of the previous principal and
the existing incumbent can provide advice,
but does not unduly influence the appointment panel. At this point governors should seek advice and the thoughts of others including students, staff and other stakeholders, such as the funding agencies.

Whether to allow outside competition is another important consideration. Some colleges find this easy to answer because they haven’t changed their Articles and so they have to go to national advert.

They may also have a college recruitment policy that states all jobs will be advertised externally and nationally. Some consider each job on its merit. This is a difficult
one because governors will not want to upset senior staff who may have aspirations to become a principal but, nevertheless, they must ensure they find the best candidate
for the college and will want to test the market.

There are instances where the principal has to step down, perhaps due to ill health. The governing body may feel they have to take immediate action. This is partly true because they do need to ensure the college has a senior leader and an accounting officer, but they shouldn’t feel rushed.

There must always be a plan in place for this type of eventuality, including a search and appointments committee meeting, confirmation of the temporary appointment of the vice principal or other designated senior leader and starting the ball rolling on the appointment process.

Every generation sighs about where the leaders of the future are going to come from and FE is no different. But they are out there and there is no need to worry.