Ofsted, funding cuts, policy changes . . . it’s no surprise that the number of prospective FE principals/chief executives is falling, says Mike Hopkins

A straw poll of principal and chief executive colleagues makes clear the reality of the decline in the number of prospective principals. Why has this happened?

Broadly speaking, issues include Ofsted and the price that has to be paid for failure; the resulting caution of vice-principals and other senior managers; the complexity of combining the senior academic role of principal and the business orientated one of chief executive.

Then there’s the loss of autonomy as a result of FE finding itself at the heart of education politics; caution about recruiting from outside the sector; and the pressures of dealing with reduced funding.

The respondents to my straw poll saw Ofsted as an ‘adversarial’ organisation. One described the principal as having the job security of a Premier League football manager without the rewards. Officially outstanding colleges could become officially failing ones at the change of a common inspection framework.

One respondent questioned why a person would apply to a college that ‘requires improvement’. Sustainable improvement could take two to three years with a reinspection in significantly less time than that.

Similarly, why would a person apply to an ‘outstanding’ college with the risk of an inferior grade  awarded at the next inspection (which could be triggered by his or her arrival) and the governors seeking an immediate scapegoat?

Many respondents referred to their perceived loss of autonomy as FE became one of the key battleground’s of education party politics.

Despite New Challenges, New Chances, many felt that the focus on data, year-on-year cuts in funding, and frequent and often contradictory shifts in policy had all impaired any autonomy to make decisions.

One respondent described the principal as having the job security of a Premier League football manager without the rewards”

Some lamented the absence of investment in a national training school and credible training for the principal/chief executive role. Others noted that most colleges still appointed from a field ‘limited’ to people who had risen to management via teaching.

The focus on ‘teaching’ could be overdone, they said, leading to a ‘bigotry’ around appointing from outside the sector.

Finally, it was also noted that senior leaders at vice-principal level were also focused on teaching and learning and therefore did not get the chance to develop the other skills required of the chief executive – for example, business acumen.

The role of principal had become far more complex since Incorporation. Having credibility in the teaching workforce combined with academic improvement, while also driving a multi-million business forward, required a broad set of skills.

When I began my career 32 years ago, my first principal would arrive into college at 8.45am precisely, with The Times folded neatly under his arm and sporting a yellow rose on his elegant Prince of Wales check suit. Generally, he wouldn’t be seen throughout the day until he left for home at 5pm.

A lot has changed since those long lost days and, despite all the pressures, much for the better.

It is tough, but it’s perhaps, in part, that toughness that makes the job such a delight and challenge.

But more than that, how many jobs can have such value-driven ethics at their heart?

Being an FE principal or chief executive is about being socially conscious, seeking economic and social equality and being at the heart of the skills chain.

It is at the heart of progressive politics, and I’d encourage anyone who is interested in that, to put themselves forward.

Mike Hopkins, chair of the Professional Principals’ Council and principal of Middlesbrough College