TOP college principals rank alongside the best of international company directors for their management skills, and outshine most other private-sector leaders, new research has revealed.
A detailed survey published today by the Hay Group of consultants puts the principals of beacon colleges on a par with "the cream of the business crop", including IBM, PepsiCo, Unilever and Caterpillar. The best college leaders are more versatile managers and more inspirational than their business counterparts.
The study, which is the first of its kind, compares the judgments of principals with those of their staff on a range of leadership styles and the ability to create a good working climate.
Comparisons were made between beacon colleges (which had gained inspection grades 1 or 2 for management and leadership), mainstream colleges, sixth-form colleges and outstanding companies which had been scrutinised over several years by the Hay Group.
The researchers concluded that 70 per cent of influences which shape the working climate of a college are directly attributable to the qualities of leadership - particularly the inspiration of the principal. They also go further to pinpoint those strengths in the beacon colleges which could help mainstream colleges excel.
However, the research also offers a warning to most colleges. Even the beacon colleges are "relatively weak in recognising strong (staff) performance and tackling poor performance".
This was the factor identified by lecturers' union Natfhe during the ballot for next Tuesday's strike as creating low morale in colleges.
For mainstream colleges to improve significantly, principals need to be more flexible and adopt a wider range of styles of leadership, as practised by beacon college principals, the survey suggests.
The study observed six management styles in use in colleges and found that while the beacon principals used them all to suit the task in hand, mainstream principals used only three and were more inclined to "revert to what they felt comfortable with" during a crisis.
Beacon college heads gained more supportive comments from staff such as:
"there is sufficient flexibility to get my job done", and "we have a feeling of high expectations and standards".
The Hay Group has been analysing public-sector performance for more than 30 years . Over the past five years it has worked with education and is currently carrying out wider performance surveys of the further education sector.
Director Mike Stanton said he was most impressed with the way colleges had challenged the private sector on excellence in leadership. "The comparison with business paints an encouraging picture of what outstanding leadership in education can achieve. It holds its place on a global stage with the top rank of international managers."
Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said:
"The Hay analysis has a sense of balanced understanding of where strengths are in the sector and an honest interpretation of where things need to improve.
"This new type of survey confirms what we thought for many years: people working with good leaders have long thought that these people compare favourably with the outside world. What we have to aspire to as a sector is the same as industry as a whole."
Leadership and the AoC, 36-37