Skip to main content

The principal gamble

A recruitment crisis at the top of FE can only be averted if colleges train middle managers to assume senior roles, writes Stephen Lucas

Stephen Hall ran a dairy business for more than 10 years before joining the College of North West London in Brent as a middle manager. Now he wants to be principal. Mr Hall, who liaises with college stakeholders, including the developers of the new Wembley national stadium and the surrounding 42 acres earmarked for regeneration, says: "I am ambitious. I do want to move up the ladder. It is feasible that I would one day like to be principal."

Before joining the college in 2003, Hall worked as the regional manager for Dairy Crest in the South East. "I was not sure I would stay in the public sector when I joined," he says. "I was just dipping my toe in, but I have got a taste for it now. With the private sector, it is a case of 'What's the profit margin for this year?'. It is not really like that with the FE sector. You get an opportunity here to make a difference. You can do something constructive for local people."

Vicki Fagg, who became principal at the college two years ago after joining as vice-principal of human resources in 1992, is trying to persuade the Wembley developers to use her students for building jobs rather than recruit outside the area. She visited Blackpool college to see how they train croupiers after it emerged that a casino might be built at Wembley.

"The most difficult thing for all senior managers, but particularly the principal, is engaging with stakeholders," she says. "They are very particular, very different from one college to the next. There is a lot that can be taught about leadership, but this is difficult."

Deputy principal Maggie Pulle agrees that being able to talk the talk with commercial stakeholders is vital.

"Having a background in the private sector could help you become principal.

Stephen Hall has a background in the private sector and can use all the jargon with these people. He has a lot more credibility with them than someone like me who has come through the FE route.

"But the bottom line is that colleges are about education. If you come in as deputy principal or principal with no education background, you will inevitably make mistakes."

Hall is taking the Centre for Excellence in Leadership's Roots to Treetops course. All 60 of his college's senior and middle managers are on the Pounds 25,000-a-year programme.

Their strengths and weaknesses are assessed, they attend coaching sessions and go on residential weekends where they learn, among other things, how to network inside and outside. By liaising with the finance and purchasing team, Hall has helped save the college around pound;10,000. He guided them in shopping around for better deals on websites and advertising.

The career development service at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership offers an e-learning module on networking. The centre believes it is vital that middle managers are trained in the skills needed for senior management roles if a looming skills gap at the top of the profession is to be filled.

Jo Dale is the project leader on Roots to Success, the centre's fast-track programme for middle managers who want promotion: "A large amount of the senior management are going to retire in the next five years," she says. "How on earth are we going to fill that gap? We haven't got to the stage where staff are moving around and colleges are sharing talent."

Richard Atkins, 52, principal at Exeter college, agrees: "There is an ageing workforce in FE. It is a big issue. We have to grow our own senior management."

Research by the centre's career development service based on interviews with 50 FE principals found that they tend to carve out their career paths in an ad-hoc way. The service now runs workshops and career coaching for middle managers, designed to combat this.

Julia Coleman, who manages the service, says: "In the past, people who could have made good principals did not go about it in a planned way and never made it. The principals we spoke to had overcome perceived barriers.

Teachers might think they don't know enough about finance, or human resources and be put off going for the role of principal. You could get round this by shadowing someone in marketing, or have a short secondment in another department."

At Exeter, there is a six-month talent management programme for teaching and non-teaching staff, which involves shadowing senior managers.

"We look for the basics," says Atkins. "They have to be effective teachers, not necessarily outstanding. They also have to have a strong sense of initiative. We have to feel that if we empower this person, they will take things forward and carry people with them.

"After six months they might decide management is not for them. One or two are understandably reticent. They possibly do not see themselves in senior roles. There is a place for modesty, but not too much of it. Some heads of department have said they did not realise what the job was like. They are surprised by the range: a one-to-one with another senior manager, meetings with parents, all in a day. At my last college, I had to dress up as Father Christmas at the children's centre."

Ensuring there are staff with the diverse skills needed to be principal is not the only incentive for encouraging middle managers to sign up for leadership training. Paul Head, principal of the College of North East London in Tottenham insists it is imperative if his college's Ofsted rank is to move from satisfactory to excellent. Head joined in 2002 after the college had been labelled poor by Ofsted. Last year, it received a satisfactory report.

"The college needed a good push to begin with," he says, "but the only way to move from all right to outstanding is through team work. We need effective, ambitious middle managers to move forward,"

Between 2003 and 2005 all 36 of the college's middle managers attended the CEL's Modular Management Programme (MMP), which encourages them to challenge their seniors and also includes training on how to deal with college stakeholders.

"I want to move away from a dependency culture where things are referred up the line and someone else resolves the issue," says Head. "Having middle managers who challenge me makes my job better. I want a good strong dialogue with them."

Gulshen Raif, head of health and social care at the Tottenham college, attended the MMP training. "When I heard about the course it was an immediate Yes. Not because I want to be principal, but so that I could be better at the job I do now."

s Raif was awarded top marks for dealing with stakeholders. Her job is to ensure that students are trained in the skills needed to staff 10 new children's centres in Haringey, so she has plenty of experience in that field.

"At my level, I can influence the way the health and social care school moves forward," she says, "but I can stay in the front line, teaching. The higher up you get, the more removed you get from the teaching."

Even for those who brave senior management, becoming principal might be a bridge too far. Gillian Eldridge, 55, assistant principal at Aylesbury college, Buckinghamshire, does not envy her boss, Pauline Odulinski her job. "I am happy being a staunch supporter of a really good principal, rather than having to do the job myself. It is a solitary role that is tough to do. Then again, if you had asked me 10 years ago if I would become assistant principal I would have laughed at you," she says.

Back at the the College of North West London, Vicki Fagg says: "People do not want to be managers. They have a negative impression of what the job will be like. I hope we are showing that senior managers are human beings, that we are fallible, but that we are enjoying our job. Yes, the exposure is terrible. That is why it took me a long time to become principal. But, as well as inspections, you are exposed to nice things, like student award ceremonies."

Leadership training can, of course, be a means to promotion for those like Stephen Hall, but it is also useful to those who do not wish to rise up the ranks. Anna Openshaw, 39, director of human resources at the College of North West London, is a mixture of anxiety about being able to do her job well and ambition to move on, according to her boss, Vicki Fagg.

Ms Openshaw, who has taken leadership courses, is yet to be persuaded that the job of principal is for her. "I haven't come out of it thinking I want to be principal. I have just taken over running my branch of the Samaritans though. Without a doubt the leadership training gave me the confidence to take that on," she says.


From newly-qualified teachers to finance managers, everyone can possess the traits it takes to become principal, according to Peter Tavernor. At Manchester College of Arts and Technology, where Mr Tavernor is principal, staff are formally appraised three times a year. Such appraisals reveal possible candidates for the top jobs.

Mr Tavernor, appointed principal at the college of 8,000 students eight years ago says: "I would be looking for somebody who had social commitment, was capable of leadership and was able to bring others with them - someone who can work co-operatively, but they need to be critical too.

"I think NQTs can show signs that they would make good leaders. We work with persistent non-attenders outside college. In an appraisal I would ask how many they managed to re-engage and get back into education. If they are showing good leadership and management skills in this area then clearly they could show it in other areas."

Mr Tavernor would warn aspiring principals about the possible pitfalls: "If you look at the working life of principals, it's a short one. I'm probably the longest serving in the north west. You have to decide whether you want to walk the drawbridge and take the risk. The principal is accountable for everything."

Mr Tavernor, who has a background in accounting, believes that having teaching experience is not the be-all and end-all of being a principal, particularly at a college with a pound;45-million-a-year turnover.

"You have to spend money wisely and well as principal. You have to account for money as much as learning objectives in the real world. If you do not have that as a view and you don't have systems to train staff in that view, you are not training them for the future," he says.

Mr Tavernor believes his finance director, Gillian Mangnall, who has acquired a knowledge of the curriculum by sitting in on department meetings, now has the skills to become principal.

"This is a big shock to me," says Ms Mangnall. "The head doesn't tell me everything. I assumed you needed a curriculum background. It's an interesting thought, but I'm not too sure. I'm on a steep learning curve as it is."


* Routes to Success An individualised 12-month fast-track programme for high-performing middle managers who want to move into senior leadership positions.

* Roots to Treetops Offers a tailor-made succession and talent management programme. Staff are eventually taught how to deliver the programme.

* Modular Management Programme Tailor-made programme delivered by three Centre for Excellence in Leadership tutors for heads of department, curriculum and support managers who want to progress.

For more information, go to

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you