A balance between risk and care

Michael Marchant came into further education only in September. Before taking the helm at Collyer's Sixth Form College in Horsham, Sussex, he was head of a comprehensive school for ten years.

While he was a headteacher, he took an education MBA, training which he believes has stood him in good stead as a principal in the relatively complex world of FE.

"At the moment we're planning for the next four years of college development, linked in with Curriculum 2000 and all the implications of the learning and skills council. I've been quite lucky to inherit a well-run establishment, so I've not had any fire-fighting to do.

"But the MBA is certainly useful in terms of how you approach things. It just gives you a broader view. It forces you to think about what you're doing. I feel sure a good principal's training programme would do exactly the same."

The first groups of college heads will soon be finishing the new training programme, introduced as part of the push by government ministers to improve standards in colleges. The first 50 principals will have finished the course by the end of March; another 50 will go through by July with further programmes to follow. The Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) is looking at setting up similar training programmes for senior management.

Meanwhile, the Government intends to bring in a qualification for principals in 2001, based on management standards developed by the national training organisation, Fento.

According to the FEFC's chief inspector, Jim Donaldson, in his annual report for 1998-99, there is weak management in one in nine colleges. The report highlighted effective leadership as the key to raising standards. The level of existing training and qualifications among principals has varied college-by-college. There is no requirement for them to hold management qualifications.

The new training has been organised by a consortium of the Further Education Development Agency, the University of Surrey and the management consultants Hay McBer. There are residential courses in London, Bristol, Chester and York. The cost of sending principals for training will initially be met by colleges and refunded at a later date by the FEFC.

The programme will focus on leadership and strategic management and is likely to match training for senior civil servants and chief executives. Principals will go through assessment exercise, and modules in leadership and strategy. There will also be a work-based project with support and accreditation from the University of Surrey.

In Wales, college heads, senior managers and governors have been going through management development workshops since November, introduced by the Welsh funding council. The council is also contributing to the new principal training so that it will hopefully be as applicable to Welsh college heads as to those in England.

Jim Donaldson said: "The whole course is actually about leadership because there has to be effective leadership in a college.

"I would argue that that's the single most important reason why colleges are successful."

He said the training programme has received a good response. By Christmas, almost 50 principals had signed up for the course even before it was properly advertised.

Mr Donaldson sees this as something principals would want to enrol in for personal development rather than feeling pushed into it. He insists there will be no element of compulsion.

"The onus is on individual principals to have a look at what the programme is trying to do, and then to decide whether it is for them."

The training will draw heavily on existing leadership programmes for headteachers and chief executives in the private sector. "We'll want to expose FE college principals and senior managers to the current thinking in industry and commerce," he said.

"I go to courses not because people expect me to go to courses. I go because I feel I have a genuine need that the course would address. So I think there's a great deal of optimism in the sector about it."

The Association of Principals of Colleges has welcomed the measure. "It's something we have sought for a number of years," said the association's president, Joe West, principal of St Helens College.

What would he like to see it do? "It should enable principals to get the right balance between risk and care, the techniques to enable us to evaluate risks.

"Also the area which new principals tend to find most difficulty is relationships with governing bodies. Managing that relationship - particularly with the chair of governors - is very, very important."

He said a corporate feel to the new training would be welcomed. "Unlike most other educational sectors, you're managing several funding streams. That makes it a job like no other."

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