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No badge, sash or funny handshake means no job

I was looking at the job description for a principal's post the other day. Not for myself, you understand, but on behalf of a senior colleague who is flirting with that sort of thing.

Two thoughts came to mind. The first was that, if successful, the colleague would be the eighth person in a dozen years to become a principal after doing time at Accrington and Rossendale. Most of them went from servitude here to freedom elsewhere in one bound. Is this a record? Why do some colleges become for a time the gathering ground for the college system?

One local reason may be the water. It's obvious that there is something in it. How else to explain the intense creativity of the early textile industry round here? What were Crompton, Arkwright and Hargreaves on? Mules and Spinning Jennies amazed the world and showed them how intelligence and hard work can be applied to solve problems.

Having sipped from the same stream, former colleagues are now knocking 'em dead in Hull, Bury and Southport, to name but three. Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke and Blackpool College are two others from which an inordinate number of principals seem to have emerged. What is the link between Basingstoke and Blackpool, apart from the fact that they both bring on an understandable desperation to escape?

It does not just apply to colleges, of course. To be invited to be one of the great and the good on a quango, it helps enormously to have worked at the Post Office. The boardroom of Marks and Spencer is regularly culled for likely lads and lasses, and even the government front benches are used as launch pads for careers in the big city.

Are such organisations, including colleges, good pickers of young, developing talent, good at bringing people on, and if so how, or do they excel at giving a really hard shove to those on the point of going? It is surely time that some proper research was done.

It would be interesting to know, for example, if there is an active grapevine, so that ambitious people are aware of the hammock colleges from which nobody ever stirs, and the springboard colleges, regularly twanging with departing wannabees. Do people apply for jobs at the latter kind, not because they actually want to work there but because it's so good for the CV?

The second thought was more troubling. If I were a candidate these days would any board of governors appoint me? What skills are they now looking for, three years into independence, with many of us in debt and all of us in competition? Person specifications are not all that revealing. There is the usual talk of flair, leadership, drive and water-walking. There are references to financial skills and personnel wizardry. Sometimes even knowledge of the curriculum gets a mention. Somehow you know, however, that the interview panel will be hoping for more.

Principals need to be good swallowers. There is the constant stream of stuff which comes to us from our various taskmasters in Whitehall, Coventry, the Regional Government office and the local training and enterprise council. The contents range from the indigestible to the incredible, from the barely palatable to the frankly medicinal, but down it has to go.

As it happens I am a skilled swallower. I can't spit for toffee, or indeed any other prize offered in the playground, where as a child my best efforts in local competition failed to clear my own chin. It has been a lifetime's embarrassment at the dentist's where my incompetent gargling has also been all too obvious.

Rather than subject the assistant, who these days could be an ex-student, to an ill-directed spray, I have developed my own coping strategy. I swallow the lot, bits of teeth and filling and all. This may be the first recorded instance of auto-cannibalism in the further education sector.

Clear vision and a sense of perspective generally figure in the list of essentials, and here I have a problem. They obviously refer to clean windows, and despite a lifetime of diligence, I remain the world's unchallenged worst. I've tried clean water, special aerosols, wrinkly leather things, newspaper, natty rubber scrapers, and the result is always the same: the view is more obscure than when I started. Where the extra smears come from I do not know. I've always made sure that vision does not get on to my job-description but stays with the premises staff where it belongs. So, I'd fail on that one.

Then there is that bit about developing and maintaining productive links with local industry and commerce, so important since incorporation and the need to be connected to the economy. It sounds reasonable until you discover that it's a coded way of saying that you must join Rotary Club.

I will do almost anything for the college, but I have not felt the need to join that admirable group of men doing excellent work in the community. It's not the lunches, nor the time required which puts me off, it is the feeling that the sort of contacts and relationships which I need to make will flourish in a variety of contexts rather than just one. Local employers have always been generous with advice, some of which I treasure.

Accordingly, I did not need to be a Rotarian to be told by the boss of a carpet firm that I needed cushion vinyl in the kitchen, tough hair cord on the stairs and a good shag on the bedroom floor. But,if there's no job without badge, sash and funny handshake, there's no job for me.

So, after a nanobreak in the summer, it will be back to the same desk, and the same goes for this column. Enjoy, enjoy.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, Lancashire

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