Historically, further education principals were the slightly intimidating grandfathers of education. They had earned scars and respect as lecturers before climbing the management ladder. Their experience enabled them to act in the best interests of the college. They knew every student, every member of staff and understood the challenges faced by each.
Modern FE principals do not necessarily fit this mould. They are just as likely to have been brought in from industry as from the ranks of teaching staff. This presents two problems.
The first issue is contextual knowledge. The traditional principal started as a lecturer, amassing years of knowledge and experience before rising through the ranks to the highest office, learning every aspect of the FE curriculum and every policy that shaped it. They were experts.
Leaders parachuted in from non-education sectors cannot hope to have a similar grasp of the decisions they will be making. Successive governments have relentlessly bullied FE into meeting their latest whims with ever-decreasing resources, but replacing principals with business people is not the answer. Staff need to respect their leaders, to have faith in their judgement and know that essential sector knowledge guides their decisions.
The second issue is that the head of an FE college has to put education first. This used to be the case. Funding cuts forced principals to adapt, to learn or hire in new skills and explore new, vocationally focused opportunities for learning, as well as economic opportunities for income. But education was still at the core. The same cannot be said for some of the principals being hired in colleges today.
A different breed
New leaders are now more likely to be business leaders or chief executives than owners of leather-patched jackets and PhDs. They have knowledge of "just-in-time" production schedules, sharp negotiation skills, economic efficiency and manufacturing intelligence. But they don't have much of a clue about education beyond their own experience of it. They will be less likely to make education-first decisions, especially at crunch moments.
Of course, FE is not alone in this; the leadership evolution has happened in all sectors of education. But it seems to be more pronounced in our sector, where the lack of educational experience is more readily accepted.
I am not advocating banishing this new brand of principal. But they do need to understand the concerns their presence creates. Here is a selection of potential problems:
- Respect: if the world's greatest tractor driver was put in charge of the Bank of England, would we, as bank employees, respect our new leader's choices?
- Changemanagement: New leaders bring new ideas. FE traditionally copes well with change. But has that been because of the educational experience of our principals and the breadth of their talent?
- Market knowledge: FE is unique - it requires a vast range of skills to lead a college. Removing the need to have education as part of that skill set negates its importance.
- Business: new revenue streams are essential to support education, but it is the business of education, not the business of business, that is paramount.
These problems are not insurmountable. They simply require a would-be principal to be more considered about accepting an FE leadership role and to understand what is required of them. This starts at application. A potential college leader should ask themselves five key questions below before applying for a role:
- What are the basic goals of the college?
- What is the strategy for achieving these goals?
- What are the fundamental issues facing the college?
- What is its culture?
- Is the college organised in a way that supports its aims?
Prospective principals should ask themselves if they would honestly be able to understand the answers to these questions. If they feel they could, they need to communicate that understanding to the college immediately and be willing to show how the answers will be interpreted.
Asking for help and opinions from staff and providing opportunities for those staff to influence key decisions is essential if principals from the business sector hope to succeed. We can accept they don't have contextual knowledge if they make efforts to use the know-how that already exists on staff.
Most of all, would-be leaders must understand that colleges are not manufacturers and that commercial success does not equal educational expertise. Many fall into this trap and it is a sure-fire way to dismantle everything that FE stands for.
Jayne Stigger is an FE manager in south-east England