'Nothing could have prepared me for this'

Lindsey Johnson became a college principal only weeks before the campus had to close due to the coronavirus outbreak

Stephen Exley

Lindsey Johnson took up her first college principal post only weeks before coronavirus hit the UK

“Keep thi’sen calm. Tha’s from Yorkshire.”

The T-shirt sported in Lindsey Johnson’s Twitter profile picture aptly summarises this down-to-earth northerner. And Johnson’s positivity, sense of humour and calmness under pressure have never been needed more than in the month since they became a college principal for the first time.

In February, Johnson returned to their native Yorkshire to become principal and chief executive of Craven College, the pinnacle of a 26-year career in FE.

Within weeks, the college had been forced to close its Skipton campus to staff and students in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with its newly-appointed principal tasked with rapidly overhauling the college's management structures and moving its teaching and learning online.


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College response to coronavirus

Johnson has quickly developed a new routine. The day starts with a cycle to the near-deserted main campus. “I open the mail, scan invoices to finance and enrolment information to colleagues,” Johnson says. “I can now use the franking machine! My day is filled with virtual meetings, which are pretty intensive, but I’m sure that as we adjust to our new pattern of working that will settle down.

While Johnson freely admits that they had not seen recent events coming, a heavy snowfall in their second week in the job stopped a high number of students and staff from attending. “At that point, I realised that we needed to update the business continuity plan,” Johnson says. “But even with that headstart, nothing could have prepared me for this.

“What I had already done was introduce weekly meetings with all managers – an opportunity to come together, celebrate the positives, discuss issues and plan ahead.” Little did Johnson realise that the suggestion that colleagues could join the meeting remotely would prove to be an integral part of college operations so quickly.

As awareness of the spread of Covid-19 began to increase, Johnson convened daily meetings of managers to quickly develop a risk-management action plan. “At this point, we started rolling out student laptops to staff, installing a VPN and ensuring that staff could work remotely,” they say.

“Microsoft Teams become our ‘go to’ platform. All student groups were set up, Moodle as a repository was ramped up, and distance learning packs were copied for students. We’d set a date for potential closure as a date to work to. As it happened, we were bang on and as ready as we could be to turn our teaching and learning remote.

Johnson has long been a passionate advocate for using technology to enhance learners’ experience. And this extends to a passion for social media – inside and outside the classroom.

Yet trying to share selfies with colleagues and students almost immediately threw up an unexpected issue in their first few days in post: social media websites, Johnson quickly realised, were blocked on the college’s main campus.

Following consultation with colleagues, the policy was quickly overturned. “Social media is being embraced in teaching and learning,” Johnson explains. “Controlling students’ access to social media doesn’t support their ability to develop self-control in its use. Colleagues are keen to embrace technology, and teach students to use it appropriately, thereby developing their employability skills.”

And the ethos which Johnson, a visible LGBT+  leader, is looking to instil at the college is progressive. They have been quick to remove boundaries between themselves and their colleagues. Perhaps surprisingly for an experienced FE leader in their first principalship, Johnson hates referring to themselves as CEO.

'Transformative leadership'

“When you look at autocratic leadership, where you might have someone who micromanages, people feel stifled,” Johnson says. “For me, running a college is about transformative leadership, not about having a cup that’s half full. It’s about going out and getting a bigger cup, and the way that you do that is through activating all the people in the organisation. That’s why my job at this stage is not to come in and make sweeping changes and presume I know everything. It’s to talk to people, find out what they know, take the advice that they give me and begin to triangulate that story.”

Johnson, however, is under no illusions about the task ahead of them. The major difficulty for Craven College, which can trace its origins back to Skipton Mechanics Institute in the early 19th century, is simply attracting students through its doors.

“The challenge for us is the demographic,” Johnson explains. “Young people are leaving the Dales and they are going to the cities. They are then coming back to have a family because it’s a lovely place to live and the schools are exceptional, and that’s why they come back. So [the college is] working with a very, very small proportion of young people who aren’t quite old enough to leave, but they might have that aspiration to taste the big city and then come back.”

This is a pattern which Johnson knows well. Having grown up in a village north of Leeds, they arrived in the FE sector in 1994 as science lecturer at Bishop Burton College, where they spent 11 years, eventually rising to become curriculum area manager for animal care and equine. In 2005 they moved to Askham Bryan College in York to become director of quality and customer support.

“That was a tiny, tiny college,” Johnson recalls. “I joined the SMT: there was the principal, there was the deputy principal who did FE, there was the director of finance – and my job title should have been ‘director of everything else’: HR, MIS, IT, business support functions, farm, student services, welfare, residences, catering, HE…”

Johnson left to take up the position of assistant principal at Moulton College in Northamptonshire, before leaving the land-based sector in 2013 to become vice-principal at West Suffolk College, and then taking on the same role at The Manchester College, which is part of the LTE Group, the largest FE group in the UK.

Much like the Dales residents they describe, Johnson has, after a stint in the big city, returned to their Yorkshire roots.

And Craven College, with a sizeable land-based provision and recently opened animal management centre, has distinct similarities with the rural colleges in which Johnson previously worked, which they describe as being “families”.

But Johnson’s approach to post-16 education is rooted firmly in economic pragmatism. “It’s not just about education, it’s about readiness for work,” they say. “That’s what will make us different from those grammar schools down the road. You will have left those schools and been ready for higher education, because that’s what those schools do; they get you ready for university. Traditional universities actually get you ready for postgraduate research and more of that academia. They don’t get you job-ready.”

And lessons learned in the colleges which Johnson has worked at have shaped their leadership style. Johnson had previously shied away from being principal due to the focus on engaging with external stakeholders.

“You don’t necessarily do it on your own terms, you do it because it’s an important part of positioning your organisation,” Johnson says. “In a way, I didn’t really develop that ambition until I went to work with [principal] Nikos Savvas at West Suffolk College. I’ve always been somebody who wants to strive for the best and will always question, 'Why can’t this be better?' And have that ambition for the students. And I like people who think like I do: students first, students at the heart of everything we do. It struck me that where you get to be able to drive that kind of culture is [as a principal]. But the only way you can do it is by getting everybody that you work with to take their share of it.

“Why I have the aspiration is that I love working in the sector. I think it’s an absolutely amazing, extraordinary place. It does get under your skin.”

And the collegiate atmosphere of the sector is something that has played a significant role in shaping Johnson’s career.

“There are so many principals out there who will offer you that support and that guidance. I’m probably a few times a week in touch with somebody, going, ‘Could you tell me what would you do?’, or asking for a bit of advice. I think what that reflects is that further education is a community. It’s a massive network. It doesn’t matter what external factors are going to get chucked at you, we are FE. This is what we’re going to do. We’re resilient, we’re robust, we can be the backbone of our economy.”

And it is these qualities which, Johnson believes, will help the college ride out the coronavirus-led disruption and eventually return to business as usual.

“As long as we stick to our values – learners first – we can establish our path through this. The key for me is about devolving responsibility to managers, trusting their judgement. To do this, we have to be far more transparent and open so that they are fully informed when making decisions. I had set out with the intention of us evolving as a college together, to become bigger, better and more resilient. The fact is, we are facing now revolutionary changes. Our team is highly collaborative, very adaptive and extraordinarily innovative. No one will be left behind. We try, we care – and we hope it shows.”

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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