Skip to main content

Lessons in leadership

Three years after becoming a principal, Christine Megson is still keen to learn. She tells Martin Whittaker why she's undertaking a new course for college leaders.

My first taste of being principal was something of a baptism of fire. The college had put in an offer for the building next door and at five past nine on the first morning, I was asked if we would like to increase the offer by half a million pounds - by lunchtime. So my honeymoon period finished at five past nine.

I joined Stafford College in 1997 - my first job as principal. In the first three months, I had to restructure it from top to bottom and draw up strategic plans for the next three years. The college was also doing a lot of franchising and I had to go to the House of Commons to face the Select Committee.

The committee was investigating FE colleges and wanted to find out what we were doing. I didn't know all the answers because I hadn't been here long enough. Then, of course, the way franchising was allowed has been tightened up because of other cases, and we have had to adapt.

So in an ideal situation, you study management theory, you go to lots of wonderful conferences, and it is all about listening, talking and consulting. But the reality is that sometimes, you just have to leap in.

We had to set targets, agree a new mission with the governors, and agree the direction for the next three years, without really having a very clear baseline. But it was a wonderful opportunity - as a principal you can only deliver with your team. Both my deputies were new and 18 new middle managers were appointed, all with lots of energy: the poor institution reeled with a lot of new ideas and energy.

I didn't come to the post via the standard route. I'm a woman returner and only started working in 1980. I was a lecturer for five years while I'd got three small children. By 1990, I was vice-principal of Gloscat (Gloucester College of Arts and Technology).

While there, one of the best preparations I did for being principal was becoming a non-executive on a hospital trust. There are enormous similarities: a big, complex organisation, multi-funding streams, and all the different facets of running an organisation.

It was excellent grounding. We were having to take terribly difficult financial decisions. And it was great experience in terms of being one of a group of people working closely for the well-being of patients and the whole organisation.

In terms of being a woman principal, I haven't faced a lot of difficulties there. There are quite a lot of women principals around now, and we know each other, or quite a lot of us do.

It was tougher as vice-principal. I was the only woman vice-principal in Gloucestershire at the time and some of the tough things there related to men who had never been managed by a woman. You still have a little bit f that.

I think it's crucial for a principal to have training. To make sure that it's got a certain number of components, and that it can be adapted to different needs. It gives you the opportunity of remaining objective about what you're doing, and reflecting, and benefiting from the way other people have approached things. I hope I'm never too proud to say I need to learn.

It's about keeping creative, and keeping objective and keeping that vision - all of those are very important. So you need basic skills and the key components of management.

You also have to keep looking forward, making sure that you're positioning the college for the arrival of the Learning and Skills Council and connections, and the employment service managing aspects of adult training, and the new Ofsted, and Curriculum 2000.

But you can't just be a visionary - you've got to be operational as well. So you need leadership and vision, but you also need to be walking round, checking that things are happening, and being around for people to talk to you.

I will be doing the new training. I think it's absolutely essential. What would I like to get out of it? Confidence that as we're reshaping, we're preparing the college in the best possible way. And being sharpened up to know what's the bestpractice.

A more complex issue is the area of employee relations. We have had to make a lot of changes here, to make sure that we've got the right staff equipped in the right way.

So I would like the training to keep me alert to all those issues. The day I stop recognising the need to train, then I'll be past my sell-by-date. Then I need to go and do something else.

There is a real onus that the training should be good. Because if it isn't, the knock-on effect could be disastrous. I think it's up to us to make it work.


The programme will be modular but delivered as an integrated experience. Its purpose is to improve leadership and management skills of principals and raise standards in FE.

The training is also intended to motivate principals to take responsibility for their own professional development.

It will draw upon the experience of the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers, but also be tailored to the corporate requirements of colleges.

Principals will undergo testing diagnostic exercises, where their own views and those of their staff are sought on their leadership style and the climate this creates within the college.

In groups, they will produce a personal development plan and choose a work-based project, focusing on an area of change within the college.

Another module will concentrate on developing leadership and give them feedback on their own leadership style.

They will look at strategic practice, with contributions from specialistswithin FE.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you