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Aspiring leaders can find room at the top

Internal promotions flourish in the search for college principals.

The struggle to find candidates for the job of principal is opening up opportunities for managers who want the top job in their own college, according to new research.

Lifelong Learning UK, responsible for workforce development in FE, is looking for captains of industry to go for the jobs. But in the meantime, evidence shows principals are increasingly being appointed from within the management ranks of the college making the appointment.

A study by the Association of Colleges (AoC) shows 40 per cent of 28 principal jobs in the past year were internal promotions, compared with 20 per cent a year ago. So things have never been better for internal candidates.

It says the high internal promotion rate is due to good investment in career development, although the Association for College Management (ACM) says the challenges of a principal's job are also making it harder to hire externally.

Evan Williams, employment policy manager at the AoC, said: "This comprehensive survey shows colleges are increasingly likely to invest internally and develop managers who then step up to senior management roles. The findings are a reflection of the focus many colleges now put on continuing professional development.

"This is our fifth year of the survey and it continues to provide the AoC and the sector with valuable information about management recruitment and retention in FE."

Some argue that insecurity about the principal's job - with many posts at risk from mergers, difficult relationships with governors and the pressure of coping with smaller management teams - means potential candidates are more likely to be attracted to promotion within the colleges they already know.

The ACM says the result has been that fewer people are applying and the likelihood of governors finding candidates from outside their own college has reduced. Like the AoC, the ACM, which has principals in its membership, has been concerned about succession planning in colleges, with many post-holders coming up for retirement.

Also, the thinning out of management ranks has reduced the pool of potential candidates, says Peter Pendle, chief executive of the ACM. "It's a bit like being a premier division football manager," he said. "Two or three bad results and you're out of a job."

Last week, the vulnerability of principals was highlighted when FE Focus reported on the resignation of Mike O'Hare, who resigned from Holy Cross Sixth Form College in Bury, Greater Manchester, after he fell out with governors.

Combined with the ageing cross-section of current principals, the research suggests opportunities for managers dreaming of the top job in their own college are likely to grow as governors put less emphasis on headhunting from other institutions. Increased movement at the top of the management chain means more opportunities for lecturers wishing to cut their teeth in administrative roles, the research says.

The AoC's survey also found that the highest staff turnover was among those doing higher education in FE colleges, with many leaving for universities. Staff with the best promotion prospects were those working in sales, marketing, IT and quality assurance.

Despite the tendency for vocational lecturers to come to FE from a trade, the highest proportion of recruits into colleges from industry was among staff working in finance, health and safety, marketing and public relations.

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