Principals are often maligned, but they’re only mirroring government policy, argues Damien Page

It is not hard to find criticism of college principals: academic literature is littered with it, the trade press is awash with it, social media thrives on it, and the staffrooms of colleges mutter it constantly. Principals are greedy, overpaid, uncaring, narcissistic, ignorant of pedagogy, anti-autonomy, and a barrier to professional practice. In short, principals embody the worst excesses of neoliberalism.

Yet what is forgotten is the difficulty of being a principal. The environment is unstable, perpetually in turmoil, tossed on the winds of fortune by ministers that never quite know what to do with the FE sector. Colleges are complex organizations containing myriad tensions, be they financial, human and technological.

When people engage in disparaging commentary about principals, they forget about the external environment. Their criticism often positions principals in a vacuum where they are masters of their own fiefdom, governing capriciously for personal gain.

Yes, principals may make massive cuts to their staffing and they may impose new contracts that increase contact hours or make more use of zero-hours contracts; they may even create environments where teachers are continually surveilled and evaluated. But let us remember that these are not the voluntary acts of managerialist despotism that they may at first appear. The principal acts not in a context of governmental concern for the FE sector but in a context where FE is an afterthought, an easy target of austerity cuts that create little public outcry.

Colleges are not isolated outposts in control of their destiny. They can be merged as a result of area reviews, they can have whole sections of a curriculum removed through financial strangulation, they can have GCSE retakes foisted upon them to the detriment of vocational education. The principal’s sole responsibility is the survival of their college and the education of their students, and if that is threatened they must take whatever action is necessary, and pacifism in the face of an invading force is rarely successful.

Colleges are not isolated outposts in control of their destiny

Principals must engage fortune on its own terms: neoliberal responses for neoliberal times, autocracy for an autocratic government. The lamentations of academics’ insightful criticism of policy in peer-reviewed journals have not halted the march of funding cuts to colleges; the wailing of the left-wing press at the redundancies resulting from forced mergers has not stalled the march of devastation. No, principals are the ones keeping the neoliberal wolf from the door and ensuring students continue to be educated. The question is how. Machiavelli had a clear answer to this question: “I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful.”

What is required from leaders is that they choose a strategy that is congruent with the context. Machiavelli himself was a product of his times and The Prince was written in a dangerous context of intrigue, political manoeuvring, torture and assassinations. It was no time to recommend virtue, fairness and pacifism; it was a time to choose behaviours and strategies that could adequately combat the dangers of political life.

Principals, then, similarly need to select their actions according to the context, adopting a bullish neoliberalism to combat the invading horde of neoliberal governmental aggression. If colleges are forced to operate within a marketised topography, principals would be foolish if they didn’t in turn ground their strategy within the most marketised strategy of marketisation possible; when they are faced with performativity, the prudent strategy is to fashion the most performative institution they can create. In this context the principal who survives, whose college survives, is the one who becomes a paragon of neoliberalism.

In times characterized by ferocity of competition, where colleges have become players within the commodified education marketplace, where the government imposes throttling systems of performativity, where the sector continues to be stripped of resources, there is no place for lambs; there is only a place for foxes and lions.

This is an abridged version of a chapter in The Principal: Power and Professionalism in FE, edited by Marie Daley, Kevin Orr and Joel Petrie.

Damien Page is dean of the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University