BECOMING A principal has taught me that life is full of little ironies. It started the day before my interview. Helen Liddell announced that the new FE funding council would kick off with a review of FE management. I was left in no doubt the day after I'd been offered the job. The first mail to appear in my in-tray was an information pack for the Preparation for Principalship programme.
Despite some very public exceptions I can't help thinking that there is an overreaction to what amounts to a small cohort of "local" difficulties. In some cases the combined effects of structural underfunding and assassinations in the bidding round for European funds make budget management virtually impossible.
In other cases people management is typified by cultures in which the principalship and trade unions treat each other like creatures from the planet Zog.
These cases are exceptional. But the management of a college is not easy, and we have to plan in a fog. With six weeks until the new budget year we have no idea of our allocations. The ultimate irony is that the methodology to calculate our grant-in-aid will be "fully explained" at a seminar for principals on March 31 - one day before the new financial year. The ombudsman could be busy in the coming months.
Do not forget that the core business - the curriculum - has been completely overhauled at the same time as we are expected to audit ourselves and evaluate our own performance before all the usual external measures and judgments.
Yet we have been operating efficiently within an FE internal market based on the principle of competitive advantage. The National Audit Office has even given the management of the sector a pat on the back.
But there's more. FE can boast a self-help strategic management initiative - the TQM project - which is at the forefront of best practice in Scottish public sector management. It is FE's best kept secret. It didn't feature in the Audit Office report, it seldom features in HMI reports and probably isn't on the agenda for the management review.
The Strategic Quality Management (SQM) project (as it is now known) started in 1991 with joint funding from the Scottish Office and Scottish Enterprise. Originally targeting five pilot colleges and aiming to promote organisational and cultural change based on a concerted effort by everyone involved in the college to focus on the needs of learners, the project has subsequently involved 38 of the 43 colleges.
It has been a startling success because of, first, the methodology, based on clusters of colleges learning from each other, with each project team of three including the principal; second, highly professional input from the Scottish Further Education Unit and the excellent consultants at work who supported each phase of the project; third, the application of a common SQM framework to the specific starting point and needs of each college.
Within the framework the college's vision and purpose is realised by ensuring that a strategy is implemented, that the demands placed on teams and their leaders are transparent, that staff and students are engaged in improving quality and that resources are prioritised with a relentless view to achieving the vision.
Under the Tories we managed the process of incorporation and quality improvement successfully. Under new Labour we have shifted with ease from competition to collaboration. Each college has found it sensible to migrate to Higher Still, to implement self-evaluation of curricular provision and overall college performance. Each is now involved in a wide range of "bleeding edge" approaches to IT strategic collaboration and the modernisation of the curriculum.
The reason for this is relentless focus on the needs of our learners - the SQM focus. The Scottish Office should be congratulated for funding FE's best kept secret. It would be ironic indeed if the management review didn't take account of its impact. If it chooses not to, perhaps I'll enrol on the Preparation for Principalship programme after all.
Graeme Hyslop is principal designate of Langside College, Glasgow, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.