Many college staff applying for a job at a neighbouring institution would be at pains to keep their interview concealed from their employer. But when North Warwickshire and Hinckley College principal Marion Plant turned up to be interviewed for the top job at South Leicestershire College, she had her employer's blessing. And this was not because it was keen to get rid of her.
There was more than just a new job at stake: if Ms Plant impressed the governors at South Leicestershire, the two colleges planned to form a federation with her as joint principal.
Ms Plant was well aware that this was a high-stakes job application. "I certainly put myself at risk," she said. Luckily for her, she passed the "very rigorous" interview. As a result, the two colleges have formed what is only the second federation between two colleges, with a combined income of #163;45 million and more than 19,000 learners between them.
Following what Ofsted described as a "significant" decline in success rates, and then almost two years under interim principal Jim Aleander, South Leicestershire's governors were keen to find a lasting solution that would help them to balance the books. After analysing a range of options, they decided that North Warwickshire and Hinckley was their preferred partner. The colleges had previously cooperated on a shared services project.
Under the new structure, North Warwickshire and Hinckley - which already has a trust responsible for running four academies - and South Leicestershire will retain their own separate governing bodies. These will be advised by a single federation board, although this will have no decision-making powers.
Ms Plant is jointly employed by the two colleges, with each paying 50 per cent of her wages. In theory, her time is split equally between the two sites but so far she has been busy getting to know her new colleagues at South Leicestershire. Both colleges will appoint duty principals to take charge when Ms Plant is occupied at the other institution.
While federations in the schools sector are nothing new, in the FE sector only Kingston and Carshalton colleges have previously entered into a similar agreement. The University and College Union has raised concerns. A spokesman said: "Neither college should see staff as something to be cut in an effort to make savings. It is vital that students in both areas continue to receive a high standard of education."
But Ms Plant, who felt "ready for a bigger challenge" after nine years at the helm of North Warwickshire and Hinckley, believes the change is "right for both colleges".
"I am very excited about this model of leadership," she said. "I'm very optimistic. All the schools we run are improving on all fronts. I therefore have the confidence to extend myself with this federation. Both colleges share a similar ethos. I believe colleges should be in the heart of their community, and should be hubs of teaching and learning."
This is not to say that she expects the project to be plain sailing. While no redundancies have been made as a result of the federation, Ms Plant admits that employees at both colleges are anxious. "Staff at North Warwickshire and Hinckley are worried about losing part of me and the influence that will have on the college," she said. "At South Leicestershire, they are quite positive about the new appointment, but they are apprehensive about what the new leadership means for the college."
The benefits of the approach, however, are already becoming apparent. Each college is expected to save #163;100,000 this year through shared staffing, catering and cleaning contracts. In 2013-14, this is expected to rise to #163;500,000 each.
FE minister Matthew Hancock has called for more "transparency and openness" from colleges planning to merge or federate.
In a letter sent to college chairs of governors last week, he said that the main focus for decisions should be "an assessment of need and how different delivery models might fulfil it", and called for consultation at an "early stage" before the statutory consultation process.
The minister also told colleges they must "consult widely and transparently on your proposals, taking explicit account of the views of the communities you serve and of other interested parties including the LEP (local enterprise partnership), local authority and the funding agencies".
I am very excited about this model of leadership. Both colleges share a similar ethos.