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High on a hill like a runaway FE principal...;Comment;FE Focus;Opinion

WHEN the principal of the Isle of Wight College left for good recently, he did it in style. He boarded his boat, slipped anchor and set sail. Whether it was into the sunset or a new dawn will become clear later, no doubt. The point is that he had lived on his boat throughout his brief tenure at the college, and his exit strategy was therefore in place from the beginning. What planning! Senior managers in colleges should take note and put as much thought into how to leave as we do into making an impression when we arrive.

There are some good historical precedents. At the height of the siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1871-72, when all exits were blocked and the population was starving, Gambetta, a minister in the French government, calmly stepped into a balloon and soared up and away, over the heads of the encircling troops. Now that our colleges are surrounded by hostile forces and our people are starved of resources, nervous principals would do well to keep an easily-inflatable balloon in their cupboard, along with their Father Christmas outfit and well-worn hair-shirt.

Then there is the von Trapp method. Imagine the scene at an awards evening in a college where the auditors, having already outstayed their welcome, are sitting in a solemn row in the front of the hall. Each member of the senior management team comes onto the stage, gives a brief report, and slips off into the wings. Finally, only the principal is left. He or she makes a pretty speech, thanks everyone for their attendance, and then, under cover of the applause, slides out and joins the rest in a daring escape into the hills.

Well-organised senior management teams already double as escape committees. No sooner has the weekly meeting begun behind closed doors, than the heavy-duty coffee-making machine is pushed aside and a hole is revealed. The SMT take it in turns to be lowered into the tunnel and start digging. The sound of their work is masked by the raucous debate on target-setting for retention and achievement, which is not the standard item for every agenda of the SMT.

The briefcases which they all take out of the meeting are even fuller than when they went in; they have exchanged the thick Further Education Funding Council reports, now shoring up the lengthening tunnel, with earth which they scatter surreptitiously on the college rosebeds. When the mass break-out occurs it's important that the tunnel should emerge somewhere safe. The trick is to avoid the innocent-looking primary school or community centre which turns out to be a venue for one of those long-distance franchises which enterprisingdisgraced colleges have set up on your patch. It's not that they would be alarmed by rather grubby people acting furtively (they are used to them) but the fleeing SMT would be at risk of being enrolled.

A close reading of recent press reports about FE shows that preparations are under way in some colleges. There have been a suspiciously large number of accounts of circus-related courses being launched. We might have assumed that there would be modules on tightrope-walking or juggling with figures, but in fact anxious principals, under the guise of getting hands-on experience of new equipment, are secretly training to be shot out of a cannon, straight on to the seat of a waiting getaway motorcycle. Who will be the first to say that they left the job exactly as they began it, fired with enthusiasm?

The literature on escapology goes back to the Second World War. It should be read with care. People in the sector still chuckle about the unfortunate director of finance who found a gaping hole in his budget and decided to make a break for it. Remembering stories of Colditz, he dressed as a nun and tried to sneak out. The two mistakes which led to him being stopped in the foyer were firstly that he was the only nun left in college because the specialist courses in Intermediate Bead-telling and Advanced Cell-management had been suspended for Easter, and secondly that he had omitted to shave his beard off.

Getting away is the easy part. Remaining free and undetected is harder. This needs forward-planning, and the books tell you not to hide away but to merge into a crowd where you will pass unnoticed. For a principal or other senior manager that can only mean one thing. Return to college. Few people know what you look like, and you can move freely round the college without attracting any attention. Some clever wartime escapers dressed up as camp guards. Borrow the uniform of the college security staff, nobody will look at you twice, and you can live happily ever after.

The author is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.

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