Leading a college is a lonely job, so don’t be too tough on principals

18th January 2019 at 00:00

I was saddened to hear of the death of Garry Phillips, who died shortly before Christmas.

Mr Phillips was bright, likeable and hardworking and while he was principal at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London, the college’s Ofsted grade improved from “inadequate” to “good” over a four-year period.

Mr Phillips became principal of City College Plymouth in July 2018. However, in November 2018, an FE commissioner published a report on his college that was highly critical of its financial state and of his leadership, in particular. It led to controversy and to his resignation.

We need to have a conversation within the sector about how success and failure are judged, in what terms and by whom.

Leadership is a lonely business. It requires shouldering much of the pressure that comes from reform and our high-stakes system of accountability. This is part of the job, and it is important that leaders avoid passing this stress on to staff. However, because of this, leadership can be extremely isolating, and leaders can struggle to understand the drivers of their own behaviour and the impact these have on their organisation.

Healthy organisations need healthy leaders. An open, trusting and democratic culture in colleges can be created only if leaders are able to demonstrate and be on the receiving end of those characteristics themselves.

However, colleges don’t operate in an environment that is particularly conducive to calm, healthily open and collaborative ethical leadership. Stress and overwork are common. Things go wrong and leaders make mistakes. This is normal.

Leaders are people, too, subject to the same desires, drives, hopes and hang-ups as everyone else. When things go wrong, they need a network of support. We must take the mental wellbeing of all our staff seriously.

We also need to think hard about accountability and oversight, and ask, who, specifically, are the right people to assess a principals’ performance? Transparency is vital but we need to make sure that the people who evaluate are the right people – those who know what they are looking at, understand how a college’s location makes it unique and comprehend the complex world in which we work.

Dame Ruth Silver is president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership

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