Diary of a college manager-monarch

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Roving reporter Stephen Jones shadows a London principal for a day

It's the old paradox: if you want to get ahead in teaching, you have to stop teaching. Bit by bit, step by step, you climb the ladder, shedding classroom responsibilities as you go. When there are no more steps to take, you know you've become a college principal - or chief executive as some like to be known.

So is that what we college lecturers are aiming for? Where we would all like to be? Certainly we'd like the pay. More than 100 college principals were shown to be earning above pound;100,000 in the recently published league tables - and that was for the year ending July 2003.

But what about the work? Would we enjoy that? Do we actually know what the job of a college boss entails? Ask most lecturers for their version of a day in the life of a principal and they'd probably come up with something like the following: "Get up; check pay slip; swan about the college a bit; posh lunch; meet cronies (otherwise known as VPs); posh dinner; check pay slip again; bed".

A day spent in the company of Thalia Marriott, principal of West Thames - a medium-sized FE college located directly beneath the flight-path into London's Heath-row Airport - goes some way to dispelling those stereotypes.

I didn't catch her looking at her pay slip once, and she had to ask me where her salary came in the league table (115th out of the 460-odd colleges listed).

Lunch was distinctly unposh too, taken in the staff canteen, cheek by jowl with the lecturers and support staff of the college that Thalia has led for the past five years. There wasn't much sign of "swanning" either as we walked around West Thames' Feltham outpost. But, then, Feltham, a working-class suburb on the fringes of the airport, is one of those places where the verb "to swan" is unlikely to be given much mileage.

Thalia's first engagements of the day - meetings with two senior staff members - were at the recently opened Feltham Skills Centre, a community-based venture that West Thames decided to start from scratch in 2003. The enterprise was a real gamble for the college, and its success is something that Thalia is keen to talk about. "Even though I was only a small part of it, the day Gordon Brown (his parliamentary private secretary is the local MP) opened the centre, I felt really proud."

We drive back to the main Isleworth campus, a collection of buildings of various vintages, located in a small grove of trees. Like all her staff, Thalia has to fight for a place in the car-park. What happened, I ask, to the principal's own reserved spot next to the front door? "That's so 1980s," she says with a laugh. "We're more egalitarian than that here."

Up in her spacious office she talks me through her diary for the week. A typical day begins at 8am ("others get in earlier, but I find it hard to get out of my bed") and ends around 6.30pm; unless, that is, there's an evening meeting or presentation to attend.

It strikes me that in political terms a principal is a bit like a prime minister and a monarch rolled into one: you have to do all the hands-on stuff, while still finding time to shake hands and pose for all those smiley photographs.

There are lots of meetings pencilled in for each day, and huge amounts of paperwork, much of it seemingly generated by that great feller of trees, the Learning and Skills Council. In between, there's anything up to 50 emails a day to be dealt with, plus "snail mail" and the phone.

Frankly, a lot of what she does looks tedious to me. It's a bit like the admin that all lecturers have to do nowadays, only with more noughts on the end. But at least as a teacher you get to nip out in between the drudgery and see a few students.

In her life before management, Thalia taught French at another college in central London. Doesn't she miss teaching, the contact with the students? Not any more, she says. She can look at it now as something she used to do.

Anyway, she points out, while you have to have a good head for figures, being a principal isn't all number-crunching.

She always meets all the full-time students, not just a quick wave from the stage and goodbye, but in separate meetings with groups of them. "I really enjoy staff development, too, and I always do the initial line-management training."

Communication is one of Thalia's key themes. Unlike many of her fellow principals, she has an open-door policy for staff. She puts out a bulletin every week, and makes sure she gets a role in the staff panto - principal boy, naturally - every Christmas.

"It's not there yet," Thalia says candidly about her communications policy.

"Some people would still say I was a bit distant, but it has improved on what it was when I arrived." Would I do her job? The salary might be three times mine, but I really didn't like the look of that 26-page development plan review she was just settling in to complete. Besides, it doesn't seem as if there's a vacancy on the cards.

"I love my job," she says. "It's endlessly challenging and what we do here makes a difference to people's lives. What could be better than that?"

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