Support for new principals is a key priority, says John Smith. But who will provide a framework as LSIS winds down?

Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw is right: the key to successful leadership and management essentially, but not exclusively, lies with the principal.  If not, what are principals for?

But how are new principals supported so that they are competent and confident in their new role?

Many different stakeholders should be interested in the answer.  The college community itself: students and their parents have most to gain from a well-run college; the staff who rely on the principal to  create a rewarding, in all senses, work environment and even to provide on-going job security; and governors who as lay non-executives rely on the principal’s advice.

Then, as many colleges are also key social and economic hubs, there is the local community.

And it’s obvious that the contribution of colleges to national priorities — and the reputation of the sector — essentially relies on the collective competence of some 340 or so principals, including inexperienced, new postholders.

New principals themselves will be well aware of the impact on their career prospects of a poor Ofsted result or financial difficulties, particularly after the brief honeymoon period is over.

The issue is a pressing one, given the forecast high turnover of principals. For instance, in Lancashire’s 12 colleges, half of principals will have moved on by the end of this year, a turnover unprecedented in recent times.

There’s never been fully established training or consistent structures of on-going support for new principals”

Of course, new principals will have previous experience to bring to their key responsibilities.  Many, but not all, will have had experience of managing curriculum, teaching, learning and quality, finance, resources and external relations, while all will be expected to have managed staff.  But critically they will not have gained this experience as a principal — which really is a game-changer.

However, two specific challenges may be particularly problematical.  First, the new incumbent must develop a strategic grasp of constantly changing policy and relate it the unique circumstances of their own college.  Looking at the big picture, telling staff and governors about it in easy-to-understand terms and then translating it into action will be a new experience for many.

Second, and just as critical, will be developing an appropriate relationship with the governing board, including establishing an acceptable balance and boundaries between governance and management.  The current government policy of delegation of powers to governors, combined with on-going financial pressures, make this a priority.  But it is something that new principals will never have taken the lead on.

Over the years there’s never been fully established training or consistent structures of on-going support for new principals; initiatives and programmes have come and gone.  Many have simply learned on the job.

Discussions with new principals in Lancashire indicate that there’s no great demand for highly structured support systems.  What they do appreciate is the opportunity to network with one another and, importantly, with experienced principals.  The monthly meetings of the Lancashire Colleges Group, where both strategic and operational issues are discussed, allow such an opportunity.  New principals also value mentoring by a more experienced peer.

These, then, may be the key elements of support for new principals: networking on a personal, local, regional and national basis, and mentoring support by request.  In
other words, support provided by principals for principals.  New principals will
ask where, if at all, any successor to the Learning and Skills Improvement Service programmes fit in.

And who will take the lead in providing a framework of support? The planned FE Guild?

John Smith, former principal of Burnley College.

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