It’s a time of transition in FE as high profile principals retire and a new generation of college leaders emerges. But what does it take to run an effective and successful organisation? Does a principal need experience of teaching or does he or she simply need a flair for management?

It’s not an easy time to become an FE college principal. Salaries might stretch to £200,000 for some elite posts, but changes in priorities, funding and politics mean that college leaders need to be more responsive than ever to comply with policy, to balance budgets, and to develop and motivate staff — while also ensuring that students leave fit for work.

Pauline Waterhouse OBE, retiring after nine years as principal at Blackpool and The Fylde College, looks back fondly on her time with the college. “It’s a great job and a true privilege to be a leader within FE,” she says. “It’s the area of education that has the greatest capacity to impact positively on people’s lives.

“The job’s changed since I first began my post; a principal now has more scope than ever to make a difference, not just to individuals but to whole communities.”

However, she accepts that the job is not without its challenges. “As a ‘dynamic nucleus’ within the community, colleges have the opportunity to contribute to economic growth and social inclusion,” says Waterhouse.

“However, it’s difficult for certain colleges — particularly within big cities — to gain a ‘seat at the table’ as a strategic partner rather than just a provider.

“It’s also a risk to be viewed as a strategic partner — as well as a great opportunity. There’s the danger that colleges could become distracted from their core purpose.”

With years of experience behind her, Waterhouse says that her ‘top tip’ would be to determine the right balance between strategic, external commitments and time spent inside the college with staff. “A good principal needs to have a strong focus on teaching, learning and the quality of learner experience. That’s what matters,” she says.

And does she have any thoughts on principals who enter the profession from outside the sector?

“It’s perfectly possible to be a good principal without working up the ranks in FE,” she says. “There are lots of careers that prepare you for being a strong leader and give you transferable skills.

“The only thing I’d say is that you might gain more credibility from your staff if you have teaching experience. But I wouldn’t say that it’s a necessity — you just need to be able to lead with the learner experience at heart.”

Data from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) shows that more than 90 per cent of principals in 2010–11 were over  40, suggesting a wealth of experience is key for this line of work. It’s no surprise; incoming principals face a number of challenges in the current climate and some might be discouraged by the intense pressures of the job.

It’s an honour to be at the helm of an organisation that exists to shape lives and futures”

Mandie Stravino, recently appointed principal of Derby College, is one new leader who’s not deterred by the job’s pitfalls.

She says: “I’d describe my new role as exciting. It’s an honour to be at the helm of an organisation that exists to shape lives and futures. Naturally, there’s an anxiety that comes with it — it’s a big responsibility to be accountable for the lives of 30,000 learners. But it’s a great opportunity.”

Stravino considers that the main challenges are in her collaborative work with employers to ensure that students leave the college fit for work. “It’s an exciting challenge to build a package of education for young people that will prepare them for the competitive labour market,” she says.

“And, of course, the future holds new challenges of its own; the pace of change this year has been huge with the raising of the participation age, the study programme, learning loans, opening up FE colleges to students as young as 14 . . . But the good thing is that you can be instrumental in change through consultation a lot of the time–  policies aren’t imposed on you as you’re central to the discussion.”

Stravino was well equipped for her role having completed teacher training, training in leadership and management and an MBA in business studies, something she found useful preparation for the ‘chief executive’ part of her job that requires a business brain.

However, she says that peer support has been invaluable: “Most of all, I’ve learned so much from experienced principals in other colleges who are leading successful organisations,” she says. “Even principals from local competitor colleges have been forthcoming in offering help, advice and support. The LSIS induction programme was also worthwhile in terms of establishing a network of other new principals.”

Verity Hancock also recently made the leap to college principal at Leicester College, having worked as executive director of the Skills Funding Agency and personally developing the National Careers Advice Service. She has never worked in teaching, so college life is a new experience.

“I’ve been a college governor and worked with colleges but not in one,” she told  FE Week last year. “I feel it’s very much incumbent on me to gain credibility and I’m conscious that most people expect you to have come up through the ranks.

“However, I’m confident that I have the leadership, financial skills and knowledge to make it work.

“I’m not complacent but not full of trepidation,” she said.

“I expect to work very hard as principal. I’m looking forward to the responsibility of steering the ship — I’m really excited.”

It seems that Hancock’s situation is unusual within the sector as the Association of Colleges’ director of employment policy, Emma Mason, comments: “Where there is movement, it tends to be within the sector and, most commonly, senior managers move internally or on to other colleges. The largest proportion of senior management departures is due to retirement.”

She says that internal transfer is the major source of recruitment at senior level in colleges and that succession planning is key in organisational development strategy.

This is supported by national programmes, such as the Sector Management College offered by AoC Create, and other similar initiatives to develop leaders and managers across the sector.

LSIS confirms the importance of tailored training. Gill Reynolds, head of improvement services: leadership and curriculum design, says its programme for aspiring principals prepares potential principals for life as a college leader.

“We’re also working on a talent mindset framework that’s intended to give the sector some approaches, tools and techniques for maximising potential, rather than focusing just on succession planning,” she says.

“Our senior leadership and management development programme aims to prepare second and third–tier leaders for executive posts, should they have the ambition to seek further promotion.”

Caption for featured image: From left: Pauline Waterhouse OBE,  principal of Blackpool and The Fylde College, Mandie Stravino, principal of Derby College and Verity Hancock,  principal of Leicester College

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