The loneliness of the hard-driven principal

27th March 2009 at 00:00

Pity the poor principal! Those of us lower down the FE food chain are forever knocking on about their astronomic salaries and apparent lack of concern for our soaring stress levels. But now I'm beginning to wonder if the sympathy shouldn't really be flowing the other way entirely.

If what is happening to school heads is anything to go by, it seems their shelf life is getting more limited by the day. Figures recently released show that last year 150 secondary heads and deputies got their marching orders.

And don't college principals face many of the same pressures as school heads, only on a bigger scale? For a start, there is that relentless imperative to deliver success. As we all know, every self-respecting principal begins his or her day with the ritual chant "In every way, in every day, we're getting better."

Then, of course, they never know when the grim reaper - otherwise known as an Ofsted lead inspector - is going to be tapping on their well-padded shoulders.

There are plenty of other scary scenarios to keep principals up at night too. One must surely be that supply in their particular corner of the labour market will soon be running far ahead of demand. No one in FE can have failed to notice that merger-mania keeps reducing the number of places needing a head. First there were colleges, then super-colleges. Now the fashion is to go mega. At this rate, in 10 years' time, the UK will have just one - called The College - with a campus the size of Milton Keynes, a finance office in Liechtenstein and 5,400 annexes.

In practice, though, this particular worry is likely to be relatively short lived. You can be sure that another 10 years down the line some Lord, charged with investigating the alleged remoteness of FE, will come up with the great idea of placing an autonomous college in every town to make it responsive to local needs.

Then there is the little difficulty that the bigger your college, the further removed you, as principal, are from your students. Poring over spreadsheets of enrolments, you might note with satisfaction that there are 10,000 names. But do you actually know any of them?

Sadly, the only ones you do get to know are the ones you don't want to. Bring on the student accused of running amok with a Samurai sword and decapitating the head of student services.

The real frustration about being a principal, though, is none of the above. It is the stark fact that in 2009 no one is actually capable of doing the job as described. To realise this, you need do no more than run your eyes over those hugely hyped advertisements that appear for college leaders.

First up are the qualities you must show: a small selection of these include talent, inspiration, dedication, initiative, creativity, enthusiasm, commitment, energy and passion, not to mention, in the spirit of Shakespeare's bloodiest protagonist, vaulting ambition.

Imagine sitting next to such a person at breakfast. This is unlikely, of course, as anyone who ticks all those boxes is unlikely ever to eat breakfast.

The modern principal must also be capable of leading from the front, have exceptional communication skills, a high level of emotional intelligence, a sharp intellect, a strong sense of mission and an excellent track record.

Above all, principals must have vision. They will inevitably be spending a lot of time in the driving seat (as well as being driven - another requirement). Then it's all systems go, to drive the curriculum along, drive learner performance up, drive the college's success forward and generally facilitate its journey to a place called Excellence (a land rumoured to be located somewhere north of Luton and south of Shangri-La).

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today