They don't need another hero...

4th May 2001 at 01:00
...but Lambeth College does need someone who can work hard, says its 'uncharismatic' principal. Steve Hook reports.

PRINCIPAL Adrian Perry is the first to admit that Lambeth College is hardly a title designed to instil confidence in potential students.

While he sings enthusiastically from the hymn book of incorporation, along with his colleagues in further education, he knows his colleges' freedom from the shackles of local education authority control is a selling point which escapes the attention of the general public.

"It has been a disadvantage to be associated in people's minds with Lambeth," he says. "Historically, Lambeth has not had a good press as a local authority. So our name has been a disadvantage."

When he took over in 1992, having moved from a college in Sheffield, he saw the college through the process of incorporation and then its creation through the merger of Brixton, South Lambeth and Vauxhall colleges.

"The college had costs which were twice the national average, a very low achievement rate, and all with student numbers falling," he said.

At that time, only 22 per cent of A-level students were passing their exams, a figure which has increased to 80 per cent. Even now, Lambeth is the 12th most-deprived local authority area in England according to Government figures.

Despite this, only 18 per cent of his students are level 3. Level 1 and 2 courses account for 79 per cent, and 71 per cent of students are aged over 25. Behind science, the biggest area of study is basic education, accounting for 827 full-time students out of a total of 4,302.

While this partly reflects the fact that only around 150 pupils from Lambeth's 11-16 schools leave with a good set of GCSEs, the problem is made deeper by the fact that aspirational parents are still sending their children out of the borough in their thousands.

Yet the college's transformation has come in time to see off the prospect of a competing sixth-form college being set up in the borough to raise standards. Its recent inspection resulted in grade 1s for governance and management, with grade 2 in all other areas. So how has this transformation come about?

Mr Perry knows that with the sector's emphasis on encouraging succeeding colleges to pass good practice on to struggling institutions, he could be making a name for himself touring the country, answering that very question.

But he is reluctant to be seen as a "dynamic" principal and, in any case, he doesn't claim to be able to put his finger on the reasons for Lambeth's turnaround.

"I suppose we have done it by appointing really good people," he says. "I could talk about it in terms of having a 'vision', but really it isn't like that. It is down to a lot of hard work and making sensible decisions over a long period of time. There has been no dramatic turnaround.

"We have higher expectations than before. We don't see ourselves as a victim college and say we've got deprived sudents and, for this reason, we are bound to be dreadful.

"That's very clear around the college. Our welfare service, for example, puts the emphasis on helping to raise achievement, rather than on social work.

"You can't claim to be looking after the best interests of your students if you don't give them the qualifications they need to get a job.

"It certainly helps to be in control of our own funds and resources, and to know that we can't resolve our budget problems by picketing the town hall.

"It also helps to have your own personnel management and not to be relying on town hall human resources people. Also, we are able to talk directly to the unions without having to negotiate via a third party."

During the days of LEA control, London was behind the rest of the country in introducing delegated budgets for colleges because it was already having to deal with the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority.

"When I came down from working in a college in the provinces, I knew a few little tricks which I don't think were understood down here, like the fact that if you turn the thermostat down, you've got more money for staff development," he says.

More seriously, by reducing over-spending on part-time teachers, the college was able to divert hundreds of thousands of pounds into replacing out-dated, black-screen computers. Under the Learning and Skills Council, he believes colleges will be more closely connected with their geographical areas rather than seeing themselves as a wider national FE community - a change he welcomes.

"We need to focus more on the communities we are actually in. I want to spend less time talking to principals in Coventry and Liverpool and more time talking to heads of schools in Lambeth," he said.

But he says the local LSCs' perceived wisdom about which courses are most suited to the prevailing job market should not be taken as gospel. Students have proved in the past that they can be better at spotting the right course than the so-called experts.

"There is little evidence that students make bad choices," he said, citing the example of media studies, which was mocked when the Conservatives were in power but has since provided a trained workforce for what has proved to be a growing industry. Who would have predicted 10 years ago that some of the poorest parts of Lambeth would be home to thriving media companies?

"Our success isn't about having a hero manager. I would be worried if I was seen as that. One of my staff paid me a compliment when they said 'thank you for not being a charismatic leader'. What they meant was that a charismatic leader was the last thing the college needed.

"What is needed was a long-term approach, not a quick fix. Just as people, when they get to middle age, are said to end up with the face they deserve, so colleges end up with the financial situation they deserve. Well, at least I can say we've got pound;7 million in the bank."

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