Back to wake Sleeping Beauty
She is no longer so lonely: with her return to the FE ranks after a four-year stint at the Scottish Office the number of female college principals rose to four. The number of women deputes and assistant principals is also growing. "I look forward to the day when the appointment of a woman FE principal is not worthy of a single comment," she says seven years on.
Now she is unusual again as one of the tiny band of people who have been principal of two FE colleges. Anniesland in Glasgow was her beat from 1989-92 before she took the Government shilling (remarkably Hugh Walker, her successor as principal there, has also achieved the double as the new principal of Clydebank College).
After going from poacher to gamekeeper and back Mrs Johnston is even more unusual than she was in 1990, appropriately for someone whose background is far from conventional. She was born in Brisbane in 1948 to Scottish parents who returned home when she was two. Her university experience is equally cosmopolitan with qualifications from Strathclyde, Sydney and Edinburgh.
After a spell as a trainee manager with Grand Metropolitan Hotels, she returned to Australia as a tourist officer in New South Wales after which she quickly moved to an FE lecturing post in the state. She became a depute principal in Sydney before being lured back to Scotland in 1981 as registrar at the then Dundee College of Commerce, also an unusual post for a woman at that time. From there it was on to Glenrothes College as assistant principal and depute before taking charge at Anniesland in 1989.
Mrs Johnston's transfer to the Scottish Office three years later required "adjustment", she confesses. "I went from being in charge of an institution to middle management. I had to get used to things like people changing my letters although I have to admit that there were sometimes very good reasons for changing them."
Her departure from the Scottish Office was clearly amicable and she retains "a high regard for the calibre of the senior people there who had listening and analytical abilities of a very high order". She spent an initial period in the inspectorate which gave her the inestimable advantage of finding out how other college principals and boards of management operated.
Despite the funding strains, Mrs Johnston believes that "colleges' energies have been released since local authority control was removed". She pays tribute to the Scottish Office for its handling of "the tension between exercising central control to allow the Secretary of State to exercise his responsibilities, and not being heavy-handed so as to give the colleges genuine autonomy". There has never been any interference in college development plans.
Mrs Johnston believes colleges have to "come off the treadmill in which we're all racing against each other in a dash for growth". Otherwise, she adds: "I have very serious concerns that colleges may not be able to achieve quality and deliver their mission."
More positively, she says colleges could be winning more business, whether in complementing the work of schools, improving their services to employers, collaborating with other colleges or playing a stronger role in higher education.
"I like to think that FE is not much the Cinderella service as a Sleeping Beauty," she says.