The prospect of making the leap into leadership without any guidance can be daunting for senior staff.
“I’d been challenged by my then chief executive, who said “Do you want to be a principal or not?’” says Esme Winch.
“And having decided I did, I thought the LSIS senior leadership and management development course would be a good way to take that forward.”
So she enrolled last year – and has since been appointed principal of Loughborough College.
The LSIS course, a series of short residential modules over nine months with follow–up work, aims to prepare senior managers for the challenges of leadership as principals or chief executives.
As Ms Winch discovered, these challenges can be external to the organisation, and internal.
“There’s a whole host of stuff going on, the policy and funding environment, the local enterprise partnership (LEPs) . . .,” she says.
“All of that is good when you’re an established principal but as a new principal in a new college, you’ve got to get that on board with a new team around you and new set of governors.
“It was great being able to have a look on the course at issues around change management. In a new job you are going to want to change things, and we’re in a sector that constantly has to change and reinvent.
“You need the skills, expertise and confidence to be able to do that.”
An emphasis on theory into practice is central to the revamped course, which took over from Aspiring Principals in 2011.
Participants are encouraged to apply their new skills in the workplace as they learn, and are offered mentoring via email, telephone or in person.
This was one of the course’s strengths for Graham Towse, who is now about to take up his first principal’s post at Hull College.
“It was very much about not just being lectured to.
“Instead, it was about practical application of what you’d been learning,” he says.
“You studied your module, practised scenarios with your colleagues on the course, then went back to base, experimented with it and applied it, with the support of mentors.
It was great being able to have a look on the course at issues around change management
“I learnt a lot from the first couple of modules and was able to apply that learning very quickly in my normal working. As a result I saw some real changes and improvements in the way I led and managed, and engaged with people.
“You got out of the course what you wanted to put in.
“It’s the type of course where the emphasis is very much on you as a person to develop.”
Many participants find that a major part of this development comes through the opportunity to network.
Mr Towse says: “As a deputy principal you don’t always get the opportunity to get out and about and network with other colleagues at the same level. You tend to be back at base managing things.
“Following the course I’ve got a network of 20 or 30 people who regularly share things. We’ve been looking for opportunities for joint development as well — that’s been really useful.”
Ali Foss, vice principal at Queen Mary’s College Basingstoke, was part of the first cohort on the revamped course.
“Once you get a large group together who are working closely enough to be very open and honest with each other, then you begin to work out who’s got the greatest expertise in different areas,” she says.
“We were able to be stronger than the sum of our parts because there was probably nothing between us that one of us had not come across before.
“We’ve all stayed in touch, we’re all sharing strategies. That kind of professional relationship that continues beyond the end of the course is always valuable.”
Ms Foss acknowledges that it can be difficult in a rapidly changing sector to find the time to reflect alongside senior practitioners; training that allowed that to happen was important not just for individuals but for the sector as a whole.
Esme Winch adds: “It is undoubtedly important for more principals and aspiring principals to engage with training like this.
“The senior leadership course was very specific, which I thought was very good – and I’m not sure what else there is around for aspiring principals without getting into very general leadership training.”
LSIS is currently recruiting the fourth cohort, offering modules into 2014, but the loss of funding makes the course’s future look uncertain.
Graham Towse describes this as “a shame”.
“The sector needs a senior leadership programme to help to develop the leaders of the future — and this has been a very good course,” he says.
“I’m hoping there will be something within the new FE Guild that aspiring leaders will be able to access when they want to move on to the next level.”
Caption for featured image: From left: Esme Winch, principal of Loughborough College, Graham Towse, currently vice principal at the Grimsby Institute for FE & HE and will take up his new position as principal of Hull College in April and Ali Foss, vice principal at Queen Mary’s College Basingstoke