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'I don't do cuddling'

Joe Clancy meets the formidable Jackie Fisher, whose take-no-prisoners management style has ruffled many feathers but delivered superb results

Jackie Fisher's reputation in the closeted world of FE is fearsome.

"Completely ruthless ... she takes no prisoners ... following her is like walking across a battlefield, there are arms and legs strewn everywhere.

"She sets very high standards. She understands the Government's agenda and she delivers it."

These are just some of the comments made by stalwarts of FE when the name of the principal of Newcastle College, one of the largest in the country with 40,000 students, is mentioned.

Ms Fisher, who earns in excess of pound;120,000 a year, does not totally disagree with the verdicts.

"I don't know about ruthless," she said. "But it is not my way to go around cuddling people. I have never suffered fools gladly. In fact I don't suffer fools at all."

It is certainly true that in the first nine months following her appointment four years ago, staff went on strike twice.

It is also a fact that the college, in recovery when she took on the job, has recently been rated outstanding by Ofsted, becoming only the fourth general FE college in the country to achieve that accolade.

Asked how she would describe the leadership style that has put Newcastle College on a pinnacle, she is unequivocal. "I would not describe myself as a tolerant person," she said. "I am very clear in terms of what I want for the college. I like things to be done to a very high standard. It saves time later.

"I cannot take a neutral position on the quality of teaching and learning.

I have to take a strong position on setting standards and expectations."

She arrived on Tyneside, having been principal at Tameside College in Greater Manchester, after Newcastle College had undergone "two years of turbulence".

A principal of long standing had retired in 1997 and his replacement had begun an ambitious restructuring process, but went on long-term sick leave before it could be completed.

"When I arrived, the systems were hopeless. The finance, management information, and human resources systems were all in disarray," she explained "The old FEFC (Further Education Funding Council) had placed it in recovery and an action plan had been created to move it out of recovery, but it was an unmanageable document.

"My job was to move it from a dysfunctional college to a functional one. We were not thinking about how to be a great college, just how we could get things to work and get things done."

Two-thirds of the senior management team in post on her arrival, 18 of 27, have been replaced. There have been two internal promotions, but many of the appointments have come from industry.

"I don't think you expect to walk into a college that has been under-led and under-managed for a considerable period of time and expect people to welcome change," she said.

"A college is all about teaching and learning and enabling students to succeed. The overwhelming majority of staff want to work in a college where that is highly valued.

"I think people like working here and like working for me because they get a lot of freedom to make the decisions and the changes they feel are important.

"I operate on a strong basis of trust in relation to the other managers in the college. I give them the headroom to make that contribution."

She added: "As a principal, you have got to set out your stall and state clearly what you think the college should be like and where it needs to get to. You want achievement to be good, retention to be good, and the budget to be strong.

"You have to identify the courses that are not performing well and diagnose what is going wrong. It is important to keep intervening and manage the problem."

But union officials say that intervention is not always welcome. A Natfhe representative at the college said: "She has improved the college. Systems are better and teaching and learning have improved. Staff are aware of what is expected of them.

"But what has gone downhill is staff pay, staff morale and relationships between employees and their managers.

"In her first year she caused two strikes and a lot of bitterness. The college lost its Investors in People status, which it has never regained.

"Fisher's style is that decisions are made at the top, but there is no follow-through in terms of what is going on lower down to see if it is actually working."

He also has his own view of how the college achieved its outstanding rating. "She has a very powerful personality and she will have used that to overwhelm the Ofsted inspectors by putting the case of the college very forcefully.

"Some areas received higher grades from Ofsted than they had given themselves in their self-assessment. A lot of people were very surprised in terms of how well we did."

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