A college is a business: never risk your dignity

One of the most successful FE college principals has some important advice for managers - and it has nothing to do with `leading learning', writes Steve Hook

if you forget every titbit you ever glean from any management training, just remember one thing: under no circumstances allow yourself to become a target for wet sponges, not even for charity.

When invited by students to spend a spell in the stocks for a good cause, it is far better to surrender a generous amount of cash and withdraw with your dignity intact, says David Collins, the principal of South Cheshire College.

Such nuggets are contained in his Survival Guide for College Managers and Leaders. It is based on 13 years' experience running what was judged to be the best further education college in the country under Ofsted's old and recently modified inspection regime, and is part of the Essential FE Toolkit series.

His advice is based on the central principle that a college is a business, albeit that its purpose is to provide value to the public rather than profit to shareholders.

In order to succeed, just like any enterprise, colleges need to stick to what they are good at, rather than trying to do everything, he says. It is, after all, the responsibility of the Learning and Skills Council to make sure the full range of courses is available to meet people's needs, using a combination of colleges and other training organisations.

This means colleges should be prepared to decline a job which they are likely to do badly. If this seems obvious, the record has shown there are plenty of colleges which have run into trouble by failing to grasp the point.

Colleges need to generate income, even if most, ultimately, comes from the LSC. This means that, like any business, they must take risks. The question is which risks, bearing in mind it is the taxpayer's investment that is lost if the enterprise fails.

The book suggests risk should be calculated by multiplying the likelihood of something going wrong by the seriousness of the potential consequences if it does.

One piece of advice which could jar is to avoid too many meetings. Mr Collins says that before deciding whether a meeting is worth attending, you should consider whether there is a realistic chance that the discussion will lead to a decision which would benefit the college. Too many managers have become addicted to meetings, he says.

In fact, he says, the temptation to talk too much, whether in a meeting or not, should be avoided. We have two ears and one mouth and they should be used in that proportion, he suggests.

Of course, in an age when running colleges has become "leading learning and skills", most excess verbiage in FE is written rather than spoken. The quality of writing in Mr Collins's book should come as welcome relief to those who believe the correct use of English still has a place in our education system. An "essential" guide indeed.

David Collins's management tips

Read your staff's CVs. They may disclose more expertise that you could use.

Welcome complaints. They are "free consultancy".

Give praise 10 times as often as you give criticism.

Don't have a chair in front of your desk, or a brief chat could become a long one.

Make college policies easily available on the intranet.

Use long-pile carpet where you can: it keeps noise levels down.

Remember that half of marketing is a waste of money - but nobody knows which half.

Survival Guide for College Managers and Leaders by David Collins, Essential FE Toolkit series, Continuum International Publishing

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