After 35 years in the sector, Gill Alton, CEO of TEC Partnership, retired last Friday. She talks to Jess Staufenberg about leadership – and keeping it snappy
One night, when she was working in the hotel sector, Gill Alton and her staff heard a commotion from an upstairs bedroom.
A group of Welsh rugby fans, extremely jolly after a match, had thrown a pillow into the street and were carefully assessing the drop.
Next in their sights was the room’s double mattress, which, it was hoped, might act as a trampoline. Alton was swiftly dispatched.
“They were great about it,” she says cheerfully, praising the group for placidly agreeing they should not, after all, squeeze a mattress out the window. “Some people are difficult at that time of night, but no, they took it very well.”
Keeping calm under pressure is one of the parallels Alton draws between running a hotel and one of the biggest FE providers in the country.
She spent two years in the hotel sector, working in human resources, before accepting a part-time role, aged 25, teaching hospitality in FE; and 35 years later, she has never looked back.
Now, the chief executive of TEC Partnership (which includes Grimsby Institute, Scarborough TEC, East Riding College and Skegness TEC) is retiring for good.
Aside from “dealing with people and problem-solving”, however, nothing else in FE is the same as hotels, muses Alton.
FE is unmatched in terms of the reward that comes from helping so many vulnerable people (parts of Grimsby are in the most deprived ten per cent of wards in England), she says.
Her own mother was a school teacher, but did not encourage her daughter into schools because of the stress of the job ̶ yet FE is different, says Alton.
“The difference is, you’re teaching an area you love to people who often really want to learn it.” She adds: “People don’t stay in education for the money. Most other sectors pay more. It’s just a lovely sector.” Pay is a theme we return to.
Alton had actually “half-heartedly” considered retiring before, she tells me, after being a turnaround principal at Rotherham College of Arts and Technology from 2010 to 2013. The college, which had previously been ‘satisfactory’, moved to a grade 2 with some outstanding features under Alton’s leadership.
Unfortunately, after Alton’s departure in 2015 it slid to a grade 3 by 2019, although last year’s monitoring visit found reasonable progress. Alton repeatedly impresses upon me how crucial her brilliant team at TEC Partnership are – but the story shows just how important the leader at the top is for a college’s reputation.
FE Week interviewed Alton back in 2013, not knowing her next steps. At that point, she had already worked at the Grimsby Institute for ten years and had then moved to Rotherham College.
She admits “a bit of a rogue manager” had made her want to leave Grimsby Institute the first time round. When she was asked to take the helm in 2015, her strong attachment to the institution made it an easy decision (despite the half-baked retirement plan) and she was in post by 2016.
In the past six years, Alton’s headline measures speak for themselves: £12 million has been added to the group’s cash reserves, two Institutes of Technology have opened, there are 52 “live projects” running from bid funding, the college even bought a small logistics company to offer lorry driver training, it has merged with East Riding College – and the college moved from a grade 2 to grade 1.
As one of her last acts as chief executive, Alton and her team will pick up a Queen’s Anniversary Prize next week, which is apparently the highest national honour a further or higher education institution can get.
So what are Alton’s views on leadership, and policy, as she looks back over 35 years? Alton took on the role at Grimsby Institute – which she says was “a very good college” by 2015 – specifically to make it outstanding. How does one do that?
Alton has a great way with phrases, sounding like a scientist or a military commander at different points. On the finance front, she says, “Every pound is a prisoner.”
She and the team tightened lots of financial decisions, filling classes where possible and tracking spending closely, to make sure the “bottom line” wasn’t hit.
Listen to your governors with business acumen, she adds. When the college was buying the University of Hull’s Scarborough campus (now Scarborough TEC), she and her team were minded to sell off the 200-bedroom residential halls, not thinking they could be useful in a largely 16-to-18 college.
But her former chair of governors was a successful entrepreneur and advised her to keep the buildings and offer them as low-cost accommodation.
Now, many doctors and nurses posted to work in Scarborough live in them, and college staff with long commutes can make use of them during the week.
“You’ve got some very capable people sitting around that table,” Alton says of her governors. “Sometimes they come out with golden nuggets.”
It was also the board that got behind the college buying the company Transafe in 2018, so it could quickly enter the market for lorry training with a ready-made staff and client base for training up adults.
This was long before the government started worrying about HGV driver shortages. “Treat your governors as allies, not as anything else. That’s my belief,” Alton tells me.
On getting to outstanding achievement levels, she says straight away: “Forensically know your data.
“Know which bits of your organisation are currently not outstanding and focus on getting them to the highest level.”
Her team also do walk-throughs of departments, speak to students and staff and “triangulate”.
The approach is then supportive, not accusatory. “The conversation is, ‘what is stopping you from being outstanding?’ And then we put in everything they need – support from HR, data they’re missing, whatever it is.”
According to Alton, 95 per cent of areas that went through the college’s ‘support to outstanding’ strategy improved.
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, TEC Partnership got a beacon award from the Association of Colleges for its improvement work.
Alton is also a fan of borrowing ideas (and great phrases), from elsewhere.
“I learnt an awful lot from Lincoln College about bid writing, because they have a very clear and effective process,” she says. “They don’t chase everything.”
Lincoln College trained her staff in using an ‘opportunity canvas’, which is a side of A4 that works like a SWOT analysis so a college can assess whether a pot of funding for a particular project matches its strategic goals.
Alton says she has taken on projects in the past that ended up as more work than use. Not any more.
In fact, if there is something noticeable about Alton, it’s that she is not given to waffle. Like any good commander, she keeps things to the point, clear and motivational. This is particularly displayed by her rules around college strategic plans.
I’ve been part of long plans most of my life
“Don’t make it long. We only ever do a one-year plan. It’s on the walls, it’s laminated, and everyone can read the strategic measurements.”
Alton has worked in places where strategic plans are closer to Biblical proportions.
“I’ve been part of long plans most of my life. But if you say to someone, ‘what’s in the strategic plan?’ and they can’t tell you, then people aren’t working towards it. I think a lot of our success has been down to that pace. ‘Let’s crack on’.”
Although five years ago now, Alton still clearly recalls the moment staff, who had stayed late in the main hall, got the feedback that told them they’d made it. “It was electric. It wasn’t down to the managers, really, it was down to the staff in the classroom. They just excelled. We were all pretty emotional actually.”
Of course, Alton is being modest – it was precisely her leadership, and that of deputy chief executive Debra Gray, that had enabled staff to perform at their very best.
But perhaps my favourite thing about Alton is that for all her successes, she does not shy away from angrily sticking up for those with less clout than she has.
She criticises the government’s habit of making FE providers bid for funding, saying it disadvantages smaller colleges (and that’s despite TEC Partnership doing well out of bids, winning £2 million for the college group in the latest strategic development fund).
Having to bid for capital is fundamentally wrong
“I don’t think we should have to bid for capital. Your probability of success is greater if you can afford a good bid-writing team, and that’s wrong, that’s fundamentally wrong. It should be based on need, not on having to pay for a team of people who can access that.”
Her other great parting shot is on pay. The gap in FE staff salaries compared to school staff (around £9,000 a year) is “outrageous”, she says. It also leaves college leaders in a moral quandary.
“Every leader in FE would like to pay their staff more, but they also have to make sure the college is sustainable. It’s a moral dilemma.”
Alton has come a very long way from managing a group of thoughtless revellers doing silly things.
Having said that, it’s a shame we can’t deploy her into the Department for Education for a couple of years. But she’s earned her retirement. The sector will undoubtedly miss her voice.