Principal breeds and how to spot them;FE Focus;Viewpoint;Opinion

29th May 1998 at 01:00
There are only four types of college chief and Graham Jones offers his guide to help you to identify yours

I am not in a position to reveal how I came upon the information in this article, but, believe me, every word is dredged from depths of experience that give me the bends whenever I come up for air.

What I have to say makes me feel like a magician about to betray the Magic Circle by giving away his trade secrets. I am about to reveal that, despite a surface appearance of almost infinite physical and intellectual variety, there are no more than four basic types of college principal.

Sooner or later, however free from taint he or she is when they take up the post, each and every principal will conform to one of the types described here - I know. Some of my best friends are principals and I have watched them turn slowly into one of the types. But, far worse than that, I am a principal and I know that sooner or later, and probably sooner, I too will suffer the fate of all others, ineluctably. But will I know when it happens?

Right, let's see if you recognise the types just from her single word descriptors. If you don't, you are probably a college governor. If you recognise 50 per cent you are almost certainly a college lecturer. If you recognise all four you are a Further Education Funding Council field officer and one of the damned yourself, because, you see, there are only four types of FEFC officer, too, but that is another story and for the future.

The types, since I detect that the suspense is now unbearable, are the architect, the trencherman, the traveller and the guru.

In my view, the architect is the worst, the most excruciatingly boring of all four. Two minutes in his (it is never "her" ) company and every vital life sign in your body is screaming at you to get out of the place. But you cannot. You are on the tour of the college and the architect is giving it loads.

"When I came here in 1974, this was a broom cupboard and I thought, we haven't got nearly enough women's toilets so I had that wall knocked down and after we had blocked out the view from the changing rooms, it was one of the first women's loos to win a design award for access. I had a new idea in 1985 and we converted it into a drop-in study centre with en-suite facilities, we added the Internet machines in 1993 so that you could surf while you pondered. And then in 1997 the cleaners threatened to strike because they had nowhere to keep their tools, so we had it reconverted into a vacuum store with on-line access to the caretaker's flat and a retractable rest room interface."

The listener knows that there are three more floors and five sites to go before the tour is over.

The trencherman is livelier company, but harder on the stomach. Catering will feature strongly in the college strategic plan and there will be at least two restaurants on site. The principal's own strategic plan will be to eat in at least one of them at least once a day, and heshe has long since run out of reasons for doing so.

Every visitor is an opportunity therefore. Every telephone call to a trencherperson will end with "why don't you come over and we'll discuss it over lunch in the training restaurant?' Here's my tip of the day for dealing with the trencherperson: choose a day when the second-year students are in the kitchen and the first-years are waiting at the tables, rather than the other way round.

Telephone calls to the traveller are expensive. Calling a mobile phone in California is not cheap. The traveller loves their college so much they do it a favour by rarely returning to it, popping in occasionally to collect expenses. Category C colleges with an average level of funding in the twenties and a burgeoning deficit usually have a traveller as a principal. The phenomenon is not confined to this country. I once met a principal in Holland, known as the Flying Dutchman for his propensity to hop on a plane to anywhere at any time. I met him when he came to Birmingham once, by mistake. He stayed out of curiosity, wanting to know why one English city should have more colleges than the whole of Holland.

Often, but by no means always, it is the guru status which leads to the travelling. Gurus write serious articles in the trade press. They are the first to be quoted whenever a story breaks. They chair network training events and are invited on to working groups.

Gurus also tend to run category C colleges, but are smart enough to claim their debt is caused by defending sound educational principles in face of marauding governments, which is probably true. Gurus all want to be the next chief executive of the Association of Colleges, but are to smart to admit it.

This is all a bit too near home for my liking. Will my awareness of the fate awaiting me prevent it happening? I don't know. Just let me fax this article off from my hotel room and I'll give you a call about it.

Perhaps we could discuss it over lunch? Oh, and I'll give you a tour of the college.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College, West Midlands

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