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Soft touch, hard centre

Peter Hoddinott started his professional teaching career at Wigan College as an assistant maths lecturer on a one-year temporary contract and stayed a working lifetime.

The former regular army soldier thought he would be at the college for a couple of years at the most, but last month - after 37 years, six of them as principal - he retired and is now an adviser to its governors until the end of the academic year.

He's no stranger to confrontation; he was posted to Cyprus almost immediately after enlisting in 1955 and spent two-and-a-half years in the Middle East, Cyprus and the Gulf of Aqaba. "I remember Eilat as a collection of mud huts which fired at you if you got too close," he recalls with a smile.

"My experiences in the army gave me a real perception of how hard and difficult life can be at times, and a certain amount of sympathy towards those who do not like the situation they are in. In terms of college management they gave me a wary eye and, I suppose, a degree of toughness. But I am no Rambo, I am a conciliator. I believe that to move forward in a professional, civilised society, you move forward to a consensus."

As principal of what is now Wigan and Leigh College, and with about 7, 500 full-time equivalent students and 500 full-time teaching staff under his direction, he had an essential belief in the need for esprit de corps.

"This is nothing to do with my army background. It should be intrinsic. It is really an abiding faith in the organisation to which you willingly belong. I cannot really define it, but I can tell when it is there and when it is not - and if it is not, you have a problem. A recent example of it at our college is the latest results of our inspection for which we received 1s and 2s across the board - that is down to the calibre of all our staff."

While principal his management style was resolutely open-door, he claims. "I have never wittingly refused to see a member of staff about anything. But some of them might have regretted coming in."

In 1992 he became principal of Wigan and Leigh Colleges overnight, and was immediately faced with the task of completing their amalgamation. "It was by no means a sinecure," he states with typical understatement. "I had to pick it up where the others had left off, run it, sort out a brand new set of people for the new college and, at the same time, could not make anyone redundant at a time when we faced a budget cut of more than Pounds 2 million. It was a baptism of fire. I coped - with a lot of help and a deal of genuine understanding of the position beneath all the hoo-hah. I don't say it was a brilliant success, but we managed it."

An "operational risk taker and educational pragmatist", his commitment to the college and its local community has remained undiminished. "Education in this area is a balancing act. One should not run into deficit or waste money, but the main managers must have sufficient flexibility at all times to meet the heartland of local need - if this means running courses in painting for pleasure for pensioners, then that is important."

Since incorporation, the college has remained level in terms of student recruitment and remains on course for its five-year development plan.

"Employment is pretty dire here and the traditional industries - iron founding, textiles and mining - have been replaced by a service industry culture," Peter Hoddinott explains. Courses have been adapted; now the college runs options in graphic design, advertising and steel fabrication.

In common with most college principals, he found the task of introducing the new-style employment contracts highly sensitive and challenging. None the less, more than 30 per cent of his lecturing staff including all his managers have signed as a result of what he describes as the "putting forward of a reasoned case".

"While I admire the sheer armoured force of some college principals on this issue, I would rather approach the same situation in a sensible and persuasive manner - simply to keep going.

"I may be regarded as a 'soft touch' in comparison to some of the others, but I have been around a long time.

"We were well through our negotiations when we were being inspected but though our staff were under a dictat to prepare for strike action, nothing happened. "

Yet beneath the benign exterior there lurks a stern disciplinarian: "I have tried to be scrupulously honest in my communications with my staff.

"But on discipline I can swing from fairly tolerant to fairly Draconian. I regard being lied to as indefensible, I do not tamper with the truth and I find it unbelievably difficult to tolerate."

After August 31 he plans to make the most of his retirement, perhaps indulging in his interests of food and travel and finally restoring his 1926 Excelsior motorbike.

"I am 63, which makes me an antique in this profession. But I have no intention of filling in my days with some sort of pale replica of what I once was - talking to you I realise I must sound like a cross between Jesus Christ superstar and Genghis Khan."

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