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Coming out of the shadows

Ambitious middle managers are flocking to learn from those on the next rung up at top colleges. Ian Nash reports.

The first big decision Amanda Davidson made after a work- shadowing secondment to improve her management skills was to sanction a ban on smoking shelters in the grounds of West Kent College in Tonbridge.

It was no big deal: colleges throughout the UK are doing likewise. But her experience observing managers at Brockenhurst College in Hampshire made her more decisive. "I came back from my visit and just said: `Oh, well, let's do it.' "

The second big decision was to accept promotion from her job as head of the creative industries faculty to director of quality and audit. "At the time, I really didn't see this as a big decision either," she says. "The post became available because of college reorganisation and I was ready for a change."

It took a while for her to realise just how significant the experience of shadowing Alex Scott, deputy principal at Brockenhurst, had been. Now she reckons it is one of the most important steps anyone can take towards promotion.

"Work shadowing is one of the best ways I know of helping you take a critical look at the way you work," she says. "I think it would be valuable for anyone at any level of college management, particularly if you've been in the post for a number of years."

But it needs careful planning and support, which Ms Davidson gained from the Association of Colleges' trust. It gave her a list of top-grade colleges with the staff expertise to meet her needs.

The scheme, now managed by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL), provides opportunities for everything from courses lasting a few days to programmes of 12 months or more. The aim is to give participants a fresh perspective on their work and deeper understanding of the skills they need for the next level of management. But it should also give hosts a chance to reflect on their own work practices and to compare leadership styles.

Rachel Organ, work shadowing co-ordinator at the centre, says: "We are working with 171 people on their placements. We've been working with some of these people for longer than a year. Our target is to have 150 shadows this year - from April 2007 to March 2008."

That target is likely to be easily met given that new government regulations came into force in September requiring all staff and managers to undergo continuing professional development - part of a raft of measures aimed at raising standards throughout FE. The centre has 33 shadows - middle managers from Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology - who are using it to fulfil in-service training requirements. And Ms Organ has seen no let-up in numbers wanting shadow attachment to a college or a prestigious company such as Marks amp; Spencer or John Lewis.

Ms Davidson chose a college rather than business secondment for a specific reason. "I knew we had an excellent college but we were not getting a grade 1 for leadership and management. I wanted to look at what other people do to get ideas, to see what a college with a grade 1 did differently," she says.

What she found surprised her. The problems at West Kent College were not so much about poor performance as poor presentation and failure to persuade inspectors that what they observed was sustainable.

The period of sustained competition between colleges in the 1990s made opportunities for collaboration worse.

"Clearly, we are not in competition with Brockenhurst, which is far enough away from West Kent to avoid any conflict," says Ms Davidson. "But this had to be a consideration when choosing where to go."

Under the CEL scheme, participants highlight the organisations and areas of interest to them, and then a suitable placement is researched. After the host and shadow have met, an intensive programme, lasting three to five days - either as a single block or spread out - is arranged.

The period of secondment may seem short, but this belies the immense amount of work needed to prepare for and follow up each visit, says Ms Davidson. "It's quite an investment. You have to make sure they work in areas you want to develop and consider all the issues of travel, locality, personal ambition and the needs of your college."

A host's-eye view

When Brockenhurst College opened its doors to a work-shadowing scheme, it got much more than anyone had bargained for.

Alex Scott, deputy principal of the Hampshire college, says it was akin to having an inspection. "The visit must be planned in detail and thought through if it is to be worthwhile."

But he has no regrets over the time spent. "I found it beneficial comparing experiences with another institution. It really helped us think about how we could do things differently. A shadow brings a lot of useful experience."

Staff were briefed for the arrival of Amanda Davidson, from West Kent College in Tonbridge, in order to prepare just the right programme. Mr Scott was Ms Davidson's host as his was the level of post to which she aspired. But to give her a perspective on relationships within the college she worked closely with Jo Landles, head of Brockenhurst's creative division.

"Jo benefited enormously, talking through how the curriculum was organised at West Kent and finding ways in which there could be mutual sharing of practice," says Mr Scott.

"Most of all, this experience allows for reflection. We continue to benefit since the shadow has left."

Brockenhurst College is now expanding the scheme, which has led it to review student support and inspection issues and ask questions about curriculum organisation.

Other managers are taking part. One colleague spent time in industry with Marks amp; Spencer. Again, the benefits were two-way. "We certainly learnt lessons from industry, but we found they could learn from us, for example about the pace we work at."

Mr Scott has his eye on promotion to a principalship relatively soon and is considering work shadowing. "I have management experience across two institutions and know I could gather insight and experience, which I would not get otherwise, from shadowing principals of different institutions."

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