It is no secret at Newcastle-under-Lyme College that Peter Hillman would like to be a college principal. Until recently, he could not find training that would provide him with the skills required to take on a more senior leadership role. Even a programme for would-be principals run by the Learning and Skills Development Agency did not satisfy him. "There seemed to be a plethora of management courses but none of them really looked at leadership," he says. But when the first programme offered by the new Centre for Excellence in Leadership started last term, it was just what he had been looking for.
Mr Hillman, director of quality and student services at the college in Staffordshire, was one of 28 managers from the learning and skills sector who gathered at Lancaster University in November to discover what makes them the leaders they are - and how they can improve. The programme is aimed at senior managers seeking promotion to principal or, for other learning providers, chief executive. It looks beyond management skills such as finance and human resources to wider issues: how to motivate people or how to develop a culture that leads to successful learning.
The four-day residential course at Lancaster, which set the scene for the one-year programme, looked at why people adopt certain leadership styles.
"I now recognise why I approach problems in a particular way," says Mr Hillman. "It also opened my eyes to a great number of other possibilities."
Over the next few years, the programme is expected to evolve as a gateway to becoming a principal or chief executive. At pound;6,000, it is not cheap. But many candidates, including Mr Hillman, are funded by their employers.
Graham Peeke, interim director of the Centre for Excellence since its launch last October, says the cost of its programmes reflects prices elsewhere and is below that of some higher education courses. "People need to understand that good development costs money," he says. "There is a culture in this sector of not expecting to pay much for good education and training."
It is no longer enough to be a good manager. Colleges and other learning providers require top-quality leadership - and they need it immediately, he says. Mr Peeke believes good leaders possess extra qualities to managers.
"You can't be a good leader without being a good manager," he says. "I suppose you could be a good manager without being a good leader."
Quality leadership is seen as vital across the industry, and learning is no different. Providers are increasingly looking for people who will transform places and can bring about change, rather than those who are simply driven by the processes.
Nobody can do everything on their own, so one of the main tasks of a leader is to develop a culture that motivates other people to work more productively and successfully. "The idea of the heroic leader has gone," says Mr Peeke. "You have to build capacity throughout an organisation."
With that in mind, the Centre for Excellence is attempting to raise the quality of leadership as well as tackling a succession crisis that threatens to leave the sector desperately short of leaders. A study by the management consultants PricewaterhouseCooper, published in 2002, showed 60 per cent of managers would reach retirement age within five years. Many colleges already report a dramatic fall in high-quality applications - and in some cases, applicants of any sort - for vacant principal posts.
Peter Thompson, assistant principal at Isle of Wight College, who joined the senior leadership programme in November, is convinced that it will help him to develop new skills and improve his chances of promotion. "If you sit about and just live your work, you don't tend to consider the greater issues relating to leadership," he says.
Mr Thompson's fees are being paid by his college, which accepts that he may need to take up to 20 days off work to complete the programme. "I have the full support of the principal and board of governors," he says. "The college wants people who can progress and develop."
The Centre for Excellence in Leadership is run by a consortium made up of Lancaster University Management School, the Learning and Skills Development Agency, Ashridge Business School, and the Open University. It has no fixed headquarters, although regular use is made of Lancaster's premises and those of Ashridge, in Hertfordshire.
As well as providing a programme for senior leaders, the centre is offering induction training for new principals and chief executives, modular management development for first-line and middle managers, and masterclasses for more experienced leaders.
The modular programme has already generated interest from outside further education and, says Mr Peeke, could easily be run for a group of work-based learning providers. "It was always clear that this centre would be for the whole (learning and skills) sector," he says.
All programmes rely on a mix of face-to-face learning, mentoring, and online learning. Online learning in particular is expected to appeal to providers in the private and voluntary sectors.
Another big challenge is diversity: the centre pledged to increase the number of women and people from black and minority ethnic groups taking up leadership roles.
A black leadership initiative, including secondments with colleges and other providers, was launched in 2003, and black candidates are likely to receive free or subsidised places using funds provided by the Department for Education and Skills.Lynne Sedgmore, who will take over as the centre's first full-time director in April, would like to see a further increase in female principals and chief executives, and greater opportunities for people with disabilities.
One of her first tasks will be to open a dialogue with adult and work-based learning providers to ensure that the centre is not seen solely as a leadership college for further education. In some cases, this may mean taking a different approach to that in FE. "It's about segmentation," she says. "I'm a chartered marketeer by background so I may need to look at the best marketing techniques."
Some questions about the centre are yet to be answered. DfES consultations over a leadership strategy for the sector closed this month , while the Hay Group is drawing up a leadership framework that will be managed by the centre.
But Ms Sedgmore, who will remain principal of Guildford College until April, believes leaders deserve much more respect and recognition. "Good leadership means making a real impact and gaining satisfaction from seeing effective outcomes for learners, as well as improvements in the way that staff work," she says.