Making a virtue out of vice

Articles in FE Focus have suggested that a cull of vice-principal posts might turn them into an endangered species.

The implications of the disappearance of this level of post would be worrying for the sector as a whole, not least because the Further Education Funding Council recently published statistics showing that about two-thirds of newly appointed principals were deputies immediately before their promotion.

Before going further, we must dispose of the kinds of vice-principal we could well do without.

Certainly no one can afford the traditional car-parking and ceremonial duties model - one that, I know, had started to disappear as long ago as 1972.

Equally, the dilution of the role when lots of senior managers suddenly find themselves vice, deputy, assistant or associate principals, although their scope is limited to personnel, accommodation or whatever, always ensures that "no one's anybody".

An extension of this is the "out of sight" vice-principal who seems responsible only for things that happen away from the college and who can only be contacted via their mobile campus phone.

Finally, you may discover the over-weaning vice-principal best encapsulated in one staffroom memo: "It has come to my notice that staff dissatisfied with answers to a problem given by the principal are then taking the same matter to the vice-principal and getting an alternative solution. This practice will now cease."

Despite these unfortunate examples I am certain that colleges function most effectively when they retain a second in command, whatever the post may be called.

The reasons for sending them all up the millyard seem to be based on a combination of misunderstanding and short termism.

The confusion is still about how far a college can be a business when it must also offer a public service to its community.

Those who equate the two completely then go on to try to ape industrial practice, as they understand it, in their management structures. Firms have gone flatter, so we must copy them. But it isn't just a question of getting rid of layers of management to improve communication; we must also think carefully about which layers we remove, given the nature of our operation.

The short-termism comes from the fact that the cutting of a vice-principal post can save Pounds 50,000 or more.

The FEFC has helpfully given the basic answer to this line of argument in its rejection of the extension of the re-structuring fund, when its makes the point that such a fund "can distort the financial basis of decisions" because other factors are ignored.

The need for a vice-principal springs from the fact that a college of any size is a far more complex organisation than an industrial concern in at least three ways.

First, our sources of finance are much more diverse, and some of them are bound up in arcane regulations that completely baffle most governors, whether from business or not.

Second, although a college has supplier and client relationships like a firm, it must also keep lines open to a variety of public bodies and, in particular, develop an extensive local network if it is to do its job properly.

Finally, widgets of whatever complexity don't require anything like the same degree of support and understanding that our students need; widgets also tend to be rather more standardised.

To be blunt, a principal needs a colleague who shares the oversight of the college at a strategic level if leadership is to be most effectively given. This, undoubtedly, involves taking a risk, since it means the principal giving up the mystique of secret knowledge while still carrying the final can.

If the next tier of management are all specialists then there is no one with whom ideas can be properly tested or who has the range of information to disagree credibly .

For the vice-principal to have full acceptance and proper self-respect, the line management of the senior curriculum and functional staff must be shared equally with the principal.

The college and the world must also know that, whichever of the two is present, the institution is represented at its highest level and the principal has to be prepared to back the vice-principal's judgment completely, certainly in public. I enjoyed this kind of exhilarating professional relationship - from both standpoints - with several colleagues over the years .

As a principal I found it not threatening but supportive, and I am sure that the synergy produced a better result for the colleges concerned.

Unless we are prepared to train senior staff in this total fashion, further education will be in dire trouble if a large number of its principals fall collectively under a bus, or even take early retirement.

Noel Kershaw, former principal of Yeovil and Calderdale Colleges, has also served as deputy principal of Nelson and Colne College.

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