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'No induction, no leaving do...the loneliness of the interim college manager'

The work of an interim manager in FE may be unglamorous, and quite often unpopular, but the role provides a unique insight into colleges up and down the country, writes Nick Warren

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The work of an interim manager in FE may be unglamorous, and quite often unpopular, but the role provides a unique insight into colleges up and down the country, writes Nick Warren

The interim manager in FE is a lonely breed. We roam the savannas of FE like friendly elephants. We arrive to no induction and we leave without a tearful leaving do. Some of us do unpopular things and disappear before anyone realises we are to blame. We also spend too much time in hotels and questionable restaurants in places we would never voluntarily visit. It is not glamorous.

We compare notes with others via email and vie for which of us is in the ghastliest Travelodge that week. We borrow the hotel iron and ironing board and our best friend is Ms SatNav, as we generally have no clue where we are. We are expendable and itinerant. It can be great fun.

I am presently on a mission in The North. No names, but a lovely cheery bunch of staff and a great team. We shall spend a few weeks together and then I shall vanish in a puff of exhaust smoke. So it goes.

The 'college Goebbels'

One is brought in to sort out problems and make a difference. Often it’s essential to achieve a great deal in a short time. This can be unpopular. Sometimes one encounters resistance. Walking past Reception one day (I was wearing a suit, and suits mean "trouble"), I was pointed at by a member of staff. “That’s him,” she yelled to her friend, pointing at me. I had never met them. What had I done? I bravely kept moving.

Another time, I was stopped by a man wearing a UCU lanyard (for people like me, this is the equivalent of coming across something in nature with black and yellow stripes). “I see you around a lot,” he said, “but I don’t know who you are or what you do.” I politely introduced myself and explained that I was the interim head of marketing. He paused. “Ah,” he said, “the Joseph Goebbels of the college.” I thanked him for the compliment, pointing out that the good doctor was very successful at what he did – at least, up to the point where he murdered his children, shot his wife, blew his brains out and had the whole family burned in a ditch. Still, every career has its blips.

Rise of the Dalek

You have to get under the skin of the place very rapidly. One thing I have learned over the years is that FE has a vast untapped resource of intelligence. The cleaners, the caretakers and the security guards are there all hours and often know more about the college than anyone else. At a college in Kent once, the principal gave me a quick run-down of the college’s predicament.

An hour later the caretaker told me exactly the same tale, though rather more entertainingly, adding, “But I don’t think the principal knows any of this.”

I have now done work in more than 70 FE colleges and they never fail to amaze. I see some fantastic work and I witness some things that would scarcely be believed in the world outside. One college had a life-size Dalek (though the exterminator gun had, of course, been removed on the orders of the health and safety manager). Leaving the building one day just before an open day, I heard the head of engineering giving the command, “Charge up the Dalek!” Only in two places in the galaxy does this seem normal: the planet Skaro and an FE college.

Someone recently asked me whether I planned to retire. I told him that I would continue to work in FE until someone noticed that I had an advanced case of Alzheimer’s. At this point, I will be taken to a semi-secure institution full of bewildered people. I’ll be quite happy as I will think I am still working in FE.

Nick Warren has worked in FE since 1980. He is an interim manager, director of marketing, consultant, researcher and author

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