Principals miss the point

15th December 2000 at 00:00
The higher up the college hierarchy you are, the less likely you are to teach. But is this desirable? Alan Rogers thinks not

George Bernard Shaw penned some good lines in his time, but arguably none has had as much impact as that famous put-down from Man and Superman, written in 1903: "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

A great line: snappy, sour and quotable. Alas, it is also right - not so much about teaching per se, but certainly about its perceived status in further education.

The sure way not to be successful in FE is to do little other than teach. True, a good teacher can and should take pride in doing the job well. After all, there's not much else on offer. But if you want high status, a salary to match and whatever perks are up for grabs, then you don't teach. As Shaw wrote, you "do".

Over the past few years, FE has been colonised by "doers". Management and administration posts have expanded, with those in the adminisphere - the higher, non-teaching tiers - drawing salaries sometimes far in excess of those on the ground floor.

Enjoying the view from the summit is the principal, the supreme "doer". The principal seldom teaches. A look-in on one of the higher courses now and again perhaps, but not much more.

Or so the evidence suggests. From 50 questionnaires sent to 50 randomly-selected FE colleges, 30 were returned by officials from the lecturers' union NATFHE with details of the teaching commitments of the principal of the college in question. The results are interesting.

Only four out of 30 principals had taught in his or her present college at any time. Several had not taught at all for between 10 and 20 years. And in only one of the colleges did the principal take a class regularly.

So, while it would be unwise to draw any conclusive lessons from such a small sample, it seems that principals mostly don't teach.

Even less of a surprise is how NATFHE officials feel about this: "The principal keeps everything at arm's length (he is a chief executive after all)"; "does consultancy work for a private company, but never impacts into college provision"; "I've worked in FE for 25 years and had six principals, none of whom ever taught. Ditto al the vice-principals and most department heads."

Only one of the respondents takes a slightly more forgiving view, pointing out that even if a teaching principal will most likely be the better for it, "I doubt that many would view it as a cost-effective way of using hisher time."

Which is precisely the point made by Janice Shiner, principal of Leicester College. Asked why she doesn't routinely teach, Mrs Shiner answers, as do most other principals, it is impossible.

"I run a large, complex and diverse organisation with 26,000 students. My job is to create an environment in which effective teaching takes place. Teaching is not my role and, given my salary, would be too expensive. I sometimes give guest lectures on management and teacher-training courses, but otherwise I simply don't have time."

If time is the enemy for all of us, it seems to be more so for principals. At Newcastle College, Jacquie Fisher is frustrated at being in thrall to the clock. "As principal of a college with an annual budget of pound;40 million, I just can't find time for teaching, much as I'd love to. In fact, if you find a principal who teaches regularly, I'd like to know about it."

Cue Dr David Collins. Currently acting principal at Bolton College, Dr Collins not only teaches himself but also requires the eight members of his senior management team to do the same.

Nor is Dr Collins afraid to step into the front line. Last year, his GNVQ business studies class was observed as part of the official college inspection. While he believes that the teaching option should be left to each individual principal, he is equally convinced of the benefits of being in the classroom.

"Not only do staff appreciate your involvement, it also keeps you grounded and brings insights that help you to do your job as a principal," he said.

He might also have added that it helps to plug the gap that exists between the "doers" and the drudges, a gap that has bedevilled British industry for generations and now does the same in further education.

Which is not to deny that principals work hard. But as long as they keep away from the classroom, it will by implication be seen as a less important activity.

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