Dr Sue Pember, director of policy and external relations at Holex, answers your questions on college governance, backed by her experience as principal of Canterbury College and in senior civil service posts in education and skills

Question One: Do new principals need sector experience?

We are just starting work to replace our retiring principal, and are considering essential candidate criteria. We can’t agree on whether it is essential for candidates to have FE experience or not. What is your view?

Answer: This is an interesting question and one for debate.

In schools it is more clear-cut: an applicant headteacher is expected to undertake the national professional qualification for headship, and although it is possible to get on this course without teaching experience it is very unlikely.

In principle it should be possible to move from a senior business role to become chief executive of a college

Although in principle it should be possible to move from a senior business role to become chief executive of a college, and while several exceptional people have done exactly that, in practice it is much harder to be successful. Some like to see the role as being mainly financial, but the reality is it is all about the students and the staff.

If an external candidate doesn’t know how to ensure a successful student experience and doesn’t understand the basics about class/group size and how it affects the bottom line, they are unlikely to lead the college to success. Personally, I believe you need a few years of experience in the classroom to truly understand students and learning; it builds resilience and allows you to understand the impact of the government’s constant changes first-hand, which in turn influences your responses and style of leadership when you become principal.

Question Two: Career advice to students

How can we maximise our opportunities with the recent change in the law requiring schools to allow colleges access to their pupils?

Answer: As with many others, I was pleased when in January 2016, the then-education secretary Nicky Morgan announced that the government would legislate to require schools to give emphasis to academic and vocational routes alike, and would collaborate with colleges, university technical colleges and other training providers to ensure this was done.

You should work with schools to gain access and create a really engaging experience

I was very excited about Lord Baker’s amendment, which came into force on January 2, requiring schools to allow providers of technical education and apprenticeships to contact pupils and promote their courses. But then I thought ‘isn’t it a sad world where we need legislation just to offer our young people fair and balanced advice?’ I am sure all of us, whether in a school or college, would say we want what is best for our pupils.

However, we do need to embrace these new rights and, as you say, it is now over to providers to maximise this opportunity.

To this end, you should work with schools to gain access and create a really engaging experience, using your best and most inspiring staff who can point out the differences between going to college or apprenticeships in positive way.

A college course or apprenticeship comes alive and is more appealing when pupils can come to see your premises. Access to pupils in the school is fine but there are other very effective practices: for example, offering specialist workshops in your premises to year 8s (12-year-olds) is one way to influence them.

Youngsters seem to know where they want to go before they pick their GCSEs so this new law is helpful but it is not going to fully solve the issue of ensuring fair information. It will still be up to you to make your offer known.

 

Question Three: Data protection reform

How does the new data protection law affect our work as governors?

Answer: Governors and the senior executive should be preparing for the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now and, as governors, you need to be aware of the changes and approve the corresponding college policy, which needs to be in place by May 25.

These new regulations strengthen individual rights

There is plenty of help and support out there and your first port of call is the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has a set of tools and information for educational organisations.

These new regulations strengthen individual rights, and are supported by rules related to direct marketing which cover the promotion of aims and ideals as well as the sale of products and services.

In many cases, organisations will need consent to send people marketing information, or to pass on their details.

Organisations will need to be able to demonstrate that consent was knowingly and freely given, and should keep clear records.The rules on calls, texts and emails are stricter than those on mail marketing, and consent must be more specific. Organisations should not take a one-size-fits-all approach and therefore college processes and permissions will undoubtedly need to be revised.