Pally Singh, principal at Kirklees College in West Yorkshire, has to juggle all the usual demands of college leadership – funding, regulations, rules. But the biggest job facing leaders is much more ambiguous than that, he tells Jess Staufenberg
As you walk down the hill from Huddersfield train station towards Kirklees College, the town unfolds in front of you like a map.
There’s a canal at the bottom, and backed against the other side is a huge mill, long out of use. Staring at it from across the water is the college, a great modernist structure of glass and steel. Surrounded by Victorian buildings, the college looks straight into the future.
Palvinder Singh, better known as Pally, couldn’t be a more fitting principal for the place. His mother, father and grandmother once worked long hours in the factory opposite.
And he is a former Kirklees College student who has returned as principal and chief executive after stints at Barnsley College, Leeds City College and NCG. He took the reins in June last year, and takes my hand in a firm and welcoming handshake, ushering me into the café.
Singh already strikes me as an unusual principal. I am used to emails being ignored by people too busy to speak to journalists. People too nervous to be interviewed are even harder to persuade. But Singh, like his college, has both eyes fixed on the future.
So despite his busyness and nerves, he’s asked to talk. It’s a fascinating conversation over two hours, covering first the past, and then everything else.
Over chilli noodles cooked by catering students (delicious, by the way) we cover the first crucial topic. Journalism.
Without attack or resentment, Singh says he wants to explain why he hasn’t wanted to be in a profile interview in FE Week. His complex answer, however, makes sense.
“I’m very visible. I carry a burden, wherever I go. If I fail, my community fails. If I succeed, my community succeeds. That’s the knife edge I live.”
The night before we speak Singh was at the Yorkshire Asian business awards in Bradford. The organiser badly wanted to introduce him to someone – her mum.
“It’s because I came from her community”. In other words, it mattered to her that here was someone from her own community who was now the chief executive of a further education college.
To put it another way, Singh explains that when he meets members of his community here and in India, he introduces himself as his grandparents’ grandson. That is how he is identified.
So the thought of one day appearing in a negative FE Week story holds a particular horror.
Singh feels coverage of financial issues at colleges led by black principals has been “very critical”.
“It was horrible seeing a picture of a principal that looked like you on the front page,” Singh says.
“So I am anxious talking to you. People say, keep your head down.”
The importance of investigative journalism that holds to account those spending public money – and caring for learners – is clearly not in question.
But Singh has an extremely important point about context and complexity. He is not interested in bite-sized, one-dimensional answers.
Here we come to our second topic. Singh is deeply worried. Optimistic, but worried.
“We live in a VUCA world,” he says.
VUCA? It’s a business and military term that stands for conditions that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The ubiquity of the internet and smartphones, the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid pandemic and Ukraine invasion all feed into it.
Even Singh’s first message to his students in the college course guide notes the “uncertain time” they have faced.
“It’s an unstable and frightening world. It’s so hard to communicate it in a few words.
“You can talk about inflation, and the energy crisis, and the staffing crisis, that’s easy. But I’m talking about ambiguous ambiguity.”
Almost a year ago to the day, Singh was walking by the canal near college.
Ahead, he spotted a teacher talking to an upset student, who was clearly threatening to hurt someone who had annoyed him. Realising he couldn’t walk past, Singh stopped.
“He was like every other student. Charismatic and confident. He could have sold anything to anyone.”
Eventually, Singh and the student began to talk. Later, the young man emailed to apologise, having not realised Singh was the principal, and thanked him for their conversation.
“I wrote back to say, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing how your time with us passes and I want you to come and see me at Christmas,’” Singh says, looking pained.
Six weeks later, the young man took his own life.
Singh rang other principals. Each told him that at least one student at their college had killed themselves in the past 18 months. His student had been in care, and when he rang the care authority, he says he couldn’t get data on suicides for that cohort.
Then at the start of this term, a 15-year-old was stabbed to death in Huddersfield outside a school.
“Why are young people carrying knives? Because they feel scared. And why do they feel scared? What demographic are they?”
As we chat, the issues fall into two categories. On the inside, the education system; on the outside, the world.
Many learners are leaving school feeling bad about themselves, with about 40 per cent not achieving English and maths, he explains (because of the comparable outcomes grading system).
“No one tells a young person ‘you’re going to grow up to be a failure’. But the system tells you that.”
At Kirklees 65 per cent of learners arrive on study programmes without passes in English and maths. On a second sitting, “at best, two in 10 are passing,” Singh grimaces.
“So you overcompensate, by being other things. Being charismatic. But it can be ‘what’s the point’?”
The problem then is that FE staff, who can make all the difference, are often overworked and undervalued because of regulations and funding decisions. At the same time students can seem anonymous in large colleges.
“Because of the size of FE, especially with area reviews following intervention, you’re losing that connection to the student.”
Meanwhile, there is a lack of community in the outside world, he says. Without a strong family unit or mentor (as he had in his own community, which included his grandmother who was his role model), most people have little to fall back on.
“The system is not designed for people from vulnerable households to achieve because we’re in an individualised society.”
This devastating context is insufficiently recognised in the corridors of power, Singh says.
“We as a society need to recognise this is a real issue – young people and suicide. It’s not being recognised. Unless you’re a middle-class parent and it affects you badly, then you don’t have the drive to lobby ministers. The vast majority don’t come from that background.”
Official figures are hard to come by. A 2017 BBC feature reported that young people who left care between 2012 and 2016 were roughly seven times more likely to die aged 18 to 21. The student at Kirklees College was about to turn 18 when he died.
I suggest that surely a psychiatrist is needed on every senior leadership team.
“It’s a great idea. And I’ll tell you why I think it’s a great idea. Our pedagogy in FE is very new. Our teaching qualifications are only about 14 years old. Our standards are ours to write.”
So his 2022-25 strategic plan calls for a “restorative, anti-racist, trauma aware college”. Two members of staff are not trained in trauma-informed practice and Singh wants more.
The other solution is to anchor students more within their subject departments, so they build an identity as a chef, a nurse, an engineer, an early years’ practitioner, and have a community that way.
But Singh knows more is needed.
“How do I bridge all this as a leader? How can I lobby for change nationally? Work within the system regionally? And we’ve still got the regulators to please, Ofsted and the ESFA, and every requirement going.
“But we’ve got a bigger job to do,” he tells me.
He notes that former education secretary Gavin Williamson, for all his mistakes, did once say: “I can say without any hesitation that the future is further education.”
After our long talk, I head out into the rain. Singh has cracked open several big conversations.
He needs listening to, and quickly.