FEfocus Editorial - CEO culture goes against college concept

18th March 2011 at 00:00

The row that has broken out at Newcastle College means that the traditional debate over principals' pay, normally heard about the same time as the first cuckoo of spring, has come a few weeks early this year.

When the latest accounts for all colleges are published, we will again be able to take a look at the overall picture. But for now the focus is on Dame Jackie Fisher (page 3). The first thing to note is that she has at least earned her place of pre-eminent college principal.

Not only is her college among the largest in the UK, it is also high- performing and growing. She has defied doubters - including the present writer - and turned around a failing college.

Nevertheless, over the last eight years, the pay of college leaders in general has risen twice as fast as that of classroom lecturers. At some point we will cross a threshold where this growing gap between principals and teachers threatens the idealistic notion that lies behind the concept of a college.

The word's origins lie in communities of clergymen, and came to education via the establishment of colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, originally for theologians. It implies a degree of equality and mutuality among its members that lives on in the modern notion of "collegiality".

But to what extent are our colleges really collegial, these days? Few, if any, principals have time to teach, so their position is rarely first- among-equals of the staffroom. The trend instead is to move towards ever more efficient and vast edu-businesses (albeit ones not run for a profit) with a foreman's office and a factory floor.

In some respects, the gap between lecturers and principals is a function of the growth of large colleges - chief executives, as principals began to style themselves post-incorporation, tend to demand pay packets in line with the size of their turnover. That gives them an incentive to grow and merge.

But it is also a sign that governors see business skills - tough contract negotiation, growth and acquisition - as more important than inspiration in the classroom, at least to the extent that they are prepared to pay for one and not the other.

It raises questions as to how far super-CEOs understand life at the classroom level. And calls for principals to be recruited from the business world suggest that there are some who do not even believe that any level of collegiality - in the sense of a shared interest and expertise in teaching at all levels - is important.

But if education is all about business now, it is not the upward pressure on principals' salaries that is worrying so much as the lack of upward pressure on teacher salaries.

This suggests that to colleges, teaching is a commodity: one teacher is much like another, so you might as well get them as cheaply as possible. One might lay the blame at Ofsted's door: the more education is standardised in line with its expectations, the harder it is for teachers to stand out.

But the public piety is that teachers are our most precious resource and their qualities are the main difference between educational success and a population living in miserable ignorance. If we believe that, where is the evidence that we put our money where our mouth is? And if we do not, can we at least stop blaming teachers for our educational failings?

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