Would-be principals are to be offered new training courses which will be on a par with government-backed programmes for the training of senior managers in schools.
The long-awaited initiative by a consortium of training groups - to be launched next week - is headed by the leading quango for staff development in further education and should quell much of the anger over what was seen two years ago as a snub by education and employment ministers.
In spite of the massive changes in colleges during the five years since incorporation, training for principals and other FE managers has not received the same attention as training for school heads and deputies.
The FE senior leadership programme aims to redress this. It will encourage people of top management calibre to develop the knowledge and skills they require to run a multi-million pound corporation before they apply for vacant principal posts.
Prospective principals will have to pay some of the costs - and there is every indication that they will, given the promotion opportunities this will create at a time of escalating turnover in senior staff posts.
The new scheme follows the recent introduction of the National Professional Qualification for Headship for would-be heads and five years after newly-appointed heads were offered the Headlamp programme to help them cope during their first year in charge of a school.
The FE leadership programme has been devised by the Further Education Development Agency, the Association of Colleges, Roffey Park Management Institute and management consultants KPMG. It will focus on personal leadership skills, business management and developing a vision for FE.
Before embarking on their studies candidates will have to attend a development centre where their training needs will be assessed and decisions taken on whether the senior leadership programme is suitable for them.
Sue Brownlow, FEDA head of institutional development, said recently-appointed principals might also wish to enrol.
Talks with a group of universities were under way this week to give the scheme top-level accreditation - equivalent to a masters degree. "We want this to become the recognised route to a principalship," she said.
Senior and middle managers in colleges can already enrol on a wide range of programmes, mostly provided by private trainers. Keith Scribbins, former director of the Staff College - now part of the FEDA - who now runs his own management and training consultancy, said there was a "rich tapestry of training".
But too often it was left up to individual colleges to decide whether their managers required it. "It's not quite anarchy but it is certainly very much a free-market," he said.
The new programme is part of an attempt to set up a common framework for all FE management training. It coincides with moves to improve initial training and establish a qualifications structure for lecturers.
John Mowbray, general secretary of the Association of College Managers, welcomed the initiative. It was unfair to expect managers who had "come up through the ranks" to cope with arcane and complex subjects such as estates and personnel without adequate specialist training.
"Many colleges have drafted in experts from outside education at the same time as a high proportion of managers have been drafted out," he said.
Mike Wright, principal of Kendal College, Cumbria, represents the ACM on FEDA's management development advisory group. "There is general recognition that until now the leap from teacher to principal has been virtually unsupported other than by a person's individual initiative," he said.
But he warned FEDA against imposing the new leadership programme on colleges. "We have never wanted to go down the same road as the NPQH." he said.
"The sector wants to have a hand in its own training and does not want the prescriptive approach that the Teacher Training Agency takes with schools."