Keep your friends close, and your college closer…

9th September 2016 at 00:00
A chipper attitude: This principal found spending his time close to his college was dispiriting personally, but rewarding professionally
When this principal took over an institution in crisis, he found that a local hotel provided the perfect base for keeping an eye on his new place of work

When Theresa May left her commuter-belt home in leafy Berkshire to go and “live over the shop” at 10 Downing Street, I felt a pang of sympathy for her. Like our new prime minister, many of us at some point in our lives end up living in digs for our job – some more gloomy than others.

Fifteen years ago, I lived at a seaside bed and breakfast in Weston-super-Mare for a year. I had been recruited as principal of the town’s FE college, which was in debt and facing takeover. A week into the job, it was obvious that I needed to be around pretty much all the time if I was going to make a success of things.

From my office window, I could see a hotel opposite, so I asked my PA to have a word about booking a room there during the week. I would have a bird’s-eye view of the college, and living among the local community would give me a real feel for the town. It would also mean that I could head “home” for an hour or so in the evenings before going back in again. The hotel, was populated by people like me who were away for work and, in the summer months, tourists. My landlord and landlady had lived in the town for 20 years and helped to give me an insight into what local people thought about the place.

I remember someone saying to me, “What’s your life like after 9pm?”, and me telling them, “It’s dirty woodchip wallpaper and plastic flowers.” I would most likely be sat on my bed, eating fish and chips out of the wrapper, unable to get rid of the smell as the windows were sealed shut with paint. I sometimes felt very despondent.

Living in such close proximity to the college helped me to be clear about what was working and what was not

After a year, I was practically a member of the family. I got to know my landlord and landlady so well that if when one of them was away or ill, I would serve up breakfast to the guests, dressed in my suit and wearing my name badge. Going back home on Fridays always brought on a mixture of exhaustion and relief. It would take me until Saturday afternoon to come round, only to find Sunday looming again all too quickly. Once I got back to work and into the swing of things, everything was fine, and I relished the challenge, but it was tough.

Living in such close proximity to the college helped me to be clear about what was working and what was not. One of the first things that struck me was that there were no students outside the building. The entrance was ugly and unappealing and no one seemed to want to hang around. I worked to change the décor and attitudes among the reception staff.

It took me about three months to understand the problems at the college. It was obvious that there was a lot of untapped spirit among the more junior staff and that the “blockage” was near the top. I instigated a number of redundancies, which included virtually all the senior team, most of the heads of department and a raft of middle managers, amounting to around 70 per cent of core management staff. I was hugely unpopular and there were stories about me almost every week in the local newspaper.

Today, the college happily generates an annual surplus; we have achieved university centre status and are due to open our fourth campus later this year. As for the hotel, I always feel a bit of nostalgia when I pass the building. My landlord and landlady have moved away and the property is now on the market. I am tempted to buy it. It would make a wonderful halls of residence. After all, it was good enough for me.

Paul Phillips is principal of Weston College

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