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A good idea in principle - but can a dedicated college deliver the goods?

Every principal believes in the need to develop leadership skills. But some wonder whether a leadership college, due to open in April, will do the trick.

With 20 per cent of principals due to retire over the next four years, the dearth of top management urgently needs addressing. For Ahmed Choonara, principal at South Notts, the case for a leadership institution is compelling. But he wants it to have a clear focus. "In consultation stages, there has been a significant emphasis about management, when the clear imperative is leadership inspiration and strategic planning," he said.

Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College, who came into FE by a varied route - clinical psychology, the civil service and as an inspector - agrees.

While "totally in favour" of the idea she has anxieties. "It must not become all things to all people," she said. "Leadership is different from management and organisation.

"I have some concern that everything is being shovelled at it. The college should be sleek and streamlined. The greatest risk is that it could become a ragbag of vanities. It is so important we get it right."

She is also uneasy about the college's standing. "It has gone out to a bidder - it is to be self-financing. I think it should be given the same status and resources as the school leadership college. Our sector does need sorting out in terms of leadership."

Lynne Sedgmore, principal at Guildford, is more enthusiastic. "We have a leadership succession crisis in FE," she said. "It is because most people see how hard the job is and would like a life of their own."

She believes the college should have something to offer every principal. "The pace of change is so fast. I am most excited about it. The leadership college should cater for everyone from senior academics learning leadership skills right through to 'high-level' master classes for established principals."

Peter Pendle chief executive of the Association of College Managers, wants swifter progress. "The bids are in but I hope, when they decide, things will come together more quickly. At the moment, it all seems to be floating.

"Generally we are supportive. But I think they will be pushed to get it running by April. It may be a relatively small programme for the first year or 18 months."

Like Ruth Silver, Peter Pendle worries about funding. "It looks as if it is to be self-financing and that institutions using it will pay the running costs. That is our understanding from meetings with civil servants. But some colleges, if short of money, may decide that the first thing to go will be training."

Daniel Kahn, head of Grimsby College and one of just four black principals nationally, believes that while things can be learned from a leadership college, a balance of theory and practice is essential.

A qualified accountant, he has learned skills of management and marketing from his time in industry. "There are many situations in a principal's life that textbooks don't teach you to deal with," he said.

Like Ahmed Choonara, he would like leadership college to be a vehicle for bringing on black managers. "Following the Peters report on black staff in FE, there is to be a mentoring approach, putting black up-and-coming managers alongside principals.

"They will act as mentors as part of the approach needed to get into senior management," he said. "That could be part of a leadership programme."

Rajinder Mann, project manager for the Commission for Black Staff in FE, said: "Our initiative will address under-representation of black staff across the sector.

"We have already shown that black staff are poorly represented at all levels. The Race Relations Amendment Act requires colleges to address this and we hope the leadership college will embed these principles."

Andrew Mourant

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