Ian Clinton took over at Stockport College in the wake of an Ofsted inadequate rating and within a year his work was recognised with a grade three result. Here he outlines key areas of focus in the quest to improve as he prepares to pass on the principal baton in April.

Taking on the principal’s role at a college that has been called ‘toxic’ is not for the faint-hearted.

Recent examples have seen sector ‘grandees’ struggle to achieve impact during interim or new roles.

I believe you need to take on such a role for the right reasons, namely to make a difference for students, staff, the local community together with businesses.

Students often only get one chance and therefore forget strategy in the first instance, and focus on what a good head of a department does. There needs to be a rapid, clear and focused drive to get the focus right.

Timetables to retain students by putting Functional Skills in the middle of the day not either end. Ensure staff comply with register completion and that they chase up each and every absence from day one and not wait several days for contact. Poor attendance is often a precursor to dropping out, use a carrot and a stick approach that includes rewards from free breakfast, trips and visits but also involve parents and employers as appropriate.

It is essential, to my mind, to take quick decisions and stick to them. Also take the big decisions yourself, but allow colleagues to take those that are not ‘mission critical’. It is a false assumption that grade four colleges only have grade four staff.

Often, there are individuals and indeed teams as talented as in grade one institutions. Exploit that, share best practice, promote those staff and listen to them. Staff voice is as important as student voice. It is also important to catch staff ‘doing it right’ and as much as possible make sure all good news is celebrated and communicated to the wider college community and beyond.

It is a false assumption that grade four colleges only have grade four staff

The Corporation Board sometimes wants interims to ‘steady the ship’ and come up with a plan. I would never take on a job on that basis as standing still means you will get further left behind. The focus needs to be on driving up standards and maximising the ‘soft’ impact measures.

Success rates are achieved largely once per year, but many measures of effective outcomes can be delivered in-year, these include work experience, enrichment, student appreciation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, diversity of Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE).

There is no doubt that bringing in expertise through external appointments or interims can be invaluable. Such colleges are ‘baggage light’ and can help you implement a whole college transformation process.

Of course, this will not account for much if you do not tackle the financial health of the institution from day one. This may well mean redundancies, staff morale issues and trade union hostility. My view is to get on with it quickly, communicate on an on-going basis with the whole college and to make sure the rationale is clear and that you are doing it for the long term and student centre gains despite the short term heartache.

Reliable and accurate data is essential and if your MIS system fails to deliver, get a better one and ensure all staff ‘own’ it. There can only be one system and one ‘answer’. Equally, it is important that as principal, you ‘sample’ and triangulate across your college.

Know what is going on, at least in part of every corner of the college. Talk to staff and students and take the ‘long way round’ to get to the next meeting.

Try not to be over precious about the governance/management divide. Encourage your board to challenge but also expect them to be critical friends — they are here to help, so use them for walkthroughs, student and staff councils etc.

I have found the FE Commissioner and his team to be tough yet immensely helpful. With Ofsted, it is important to challenge their initial assumptions to make sure you make your college progress obvious.

In conclusion, a few pointers, do not overdo external meeting attendance, your priority is in the college; keep a clear sense of proportion on all things FE, remember to enjoy what is still a fantastic job and to make sure you have the occasional chuckle over Sir Michael Wilshaw’s latest attempt to play politics.