When Colin Hindmarch took over at struggling Harlow College in Essex, he soon found that he was up against a comprehensive alliance of unions, students, former FE minister Bill Rammell and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). It could have been a better start.
But now, with an Ofsted report rating the college good with outstanding features and exam performance that ranks alongside almost any college in the country, Harlow has completed a remarkable turnaround.
Mr Hindmarch arrived in 2007 believing the college was rated satisfactory, only to find later that the judgment was based on incorrect success rate data. Within months of his taking the helm, the college was reinspected, following one of FE's most bitter industrial disputes, and found to be failing.
The University and College Union had rejected attempts to change staff contracts - which it said would cut pay and holiday for some - and introduce a new, lower-grade teaching role. After five days of strikes, 80 of 210 teaching staff quit rather than sign up to the new terms.
Mr Rammell intervened to warn that the college might not be able to teach the full curriculum, as one class grew to 100 students. Then the LSC piled in, requiring two places on the governing body filled by people critical of the changes.
Looking back, Mr Hindmarch said he underestimated how little trust in management there was at the college - staff did not believe claims that the new arrangements would give them more control.
He said: "We lost a lot of staff and we lost a lot who we didn't want to lose. The major problem was that the college previously had not moved to a system of team leaders, and staff, for whatever reason, trusted and listened far more to the union than the management. When the union became alarmed, staff went along with that."
Harlow's contract changes were intended to enable a new approach to teaching, he said. Students would be required to complete a fixed amount of work each day. If they finished early, they and their teachers could go home. If progress was slow, they could be forced to stay until 7pm.
With many of the staff new to the college and apparently relishing a challenge, Mr Hindmarch said attitudes began to change. He said: "Although we do have students who stay late, the majority are very galvanised by wanting to finish as quickly as possible. Students didn't want to take breaks or lunch breaks so they could finish their objectives and go. It makes sense: many of them also have part-time jobs. On average, they finish earlier than elsewhere."
Teaching teams determine how many hours they teach, and even how long the terms are. "We say to the teams, here is your money, now organise yourselves to deliver the results. Our teams have a great deal of freedom," Mr Hindmarch said.
It is an approach which now also appeals to the Government and its agencies. The Skills Funding Agency is scrapping requirements for specific guided learning hours in favour of letting colleges decide how much teaching a course requires.
FE minister John Hayes told the Commons last week: "We will look very closely at the work being done at Harlow College, which is an exemplar in so many ways."