No more heroes anymore

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
These days principals do exactly what they're told, says Michael Austin, and much of the stress of the job has gone. But sadly so has the excitement

Who wants to be a millionaire? In the Cole Porter song, written for the film High Society, nobody did. In Chris Tarrant's television show everybody does. To be principal of even a medium-sized FE college for a dozen years means that you will earn a million, yet there are no long queues of applicants.

What those who had been one - and many who hadn't yet got there - thought was probably the best job in the world seems to have lost its lustre. Even five years ago you would get 60 or 70 applications for a principalship, with no more than a handful of seriously deluded no-hopers. Sometimes these days you are lucky to get 10 who can spell "curriculum" and breathe at the same time. What has happened?

It cannot surely be that life as the chief executive, as the can-carrier and as the chief flag-waver, is over-rated. And yet the bright-eyed eager deputies who once pored over the situations vacant pages now turn instead to more wholesome fare.

Some unreformed old lags, whose minds go back further than yesterday's breakfast, say that the white-knuckle excitement of the big dipper has gone, to be replaced by the certainties of a comfortable ride on a roundabout. Looking out from a few principals' chairs recently, I can see what they mean. Nostalgia is a dangerous companion when you nip down memory lane, but the going does look a lot easier these days.

The key part of the principals' job has not changed: helping students to learn. What is different now is that targets set by others, (notably the Government andor the Learning and Skills Council), planning requirements and funding which is limited to specific kinds of activity have all made much of what used to be tough decision-making unnecessary. You are told exactly what to do, and when and how to do it. No more icepacks round your head at midnight.

Back in what were obviously the bad old days (though principals were too excited to recognise it at the time), heroes and heroines stalked the land, and principals were allowed and even encouraged to innovate. This was not experiment for the sake of experimentation, but attempts to find new ways to attract students and retain their interest so that they could achieve.

Alas, look what happened. Imagination and enterprise went unchecked and there were spectacular failures and scandals, often centering on poor financial management, the result of allegedly incompetent planning and target-setting.

But there were some real and lasting changes. We learned a lot about how to provide for adults with family responsibilities; about offering good education away from the main college sites; about integrating information technology into virtually all courses; and, most important, we began to cut down on over-teaching and concentrate on encouraging learning.

Some of these outlandish ideas were picked up and replicated. However the trust invested in the principal and the freedom given to act were deemed to be onerous responsibilities, and the poor harassed souls had to be rescued.

Imagination, flair and innovation are now risky second order talents, top of the list is reliability. Gone are the times when a principal could dream of re-shaping a college in their own image. Whether the person makes the job, or the job the person is neither here nor there.

The job requires them, in return for a healthy salary, to propel the college to the head of the league tables, or to keep it there.

So boards of governors like reliable, dependable admirable managers, and anyone with the capacity to think laterally is advised to keep that talent well hidden. Grey is good, bright is out. Management and leadership have always been the two elements in the make-up of a good principal. Whereas once it was leadership, the emphasis is now firmly on management.

Does any of this matter?

Well, the new orthodoxy means that principals spend less time thinking about helping students to learn.

The priority now is managing external relationships with schools, other colleges, the LSC, universities, awarding bodies, voluntary groups, local councils and all those under whose scrutiny colleges operate. Attending meetings, making returns, submitting plans, compiling evaluations: routine, straightforward, measurable stuff. Much less is heard about the student experience in the classroom. The Foreign Office has elbowed out the Home Office.

A good clue about how a college is managed is to take a look at the background of the principal. Way back they were all engineers, and so were their deputies, then arts graduates moved in, and started tossing around fancy ideas about open learning and outreach.

The tossers are in eclipse now, and among the new breed of successful principals are ex-chefs, who relish the job. Cynics say that they do well because the heat of the kitchen holds no terrors, but it is surely the case that, not only do they know which side their bread is buttered, but they know a piece of cake when they see it.

Michael Austin is a former principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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