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Time out opened my eyes

I am on sabbatical and that makes me unique. I am the first principal in further education ever to have taken a sabbatical and as a result of my experiences I am now "on a mission" to make them part of the FE fabric so my colleagues can also take advantage of this fantastic opportunity.

For the past three months I have stepped outside my usual world of being the principal of Lewisham college, one of the largest FE colleges in the country. With 16,000 students, an average age of 31 and 700 staff in one of the poorest parts of the UK, life is busy to say the least - so busy that taking time out to think and to regain my perspective is a luxury I did not have. Until now.

The sabbatical gave me the opportunity to explore in any direction I chose: gardening or perhaps catching up on some reading. Having realised that I would not have lasted five minutes enjoying such sedentary pursuits, I decided instead to open another door and step into a different and changing world - that of recruitment.

And so I found myself in the offices of Veredus Executive Resourcing, one of the country's top head-hunters, keen to learn more about a business of which I had little in-depth knowledge, but one that is nonetheless vital to the success of any organisation, my college included.

Having used Veredus on a number of occasions to recruit into top positions, and having even been head-hunted by them myself, I wanted to see what went on behind the scenes and whether people who do not work in the sector can really determine accurately just what kind of person should be recruited into a top job.

This I saw, and much more. Taking a step outside the world of education provided me with a completely different perspective. Looking back in, I could see how the boundaries were moving, what skills were needed to cope with this changing educational landscape and how and where these skills could be transferred from one sector to another.

I also witnessed an open style of working that I missed; an openness that I feel has largely gone from my own world.

At Veredus, there is exceptional warmth between colleagues, a willingness to share, and thoughtfulness in the way they approach their work and professional relationships.

The experience has also taught me about modern ways of working. Staff here, at even the highest levels, are self-serving; there are no big offices, executive washrooms or even personnel assistants.

There is also little hierarchy. People work hard, are exhaustive in the intensity and rigour of their recruitment processes and are completely and genuinely client-focused.

In an organisation full to the brim with very bright people, there are no politics or attitudes - all in all, a breath of fresh air.

Veredus, for me, has in a sense been an oasis, a chance to get away from the day to day, to stop and think and to view the education sector from a different standpoint in a non-judgemental way.

Since taking my secondment, many people have asked me how I managed it. The answer is simple: I just asked, and it is one of the best things I have done.

Everyone needs a break, a chance to take stock and come back refreshed. My advice to you, if you want to take a sabbatical, is to go and ask. You never know - the answer may even be yes.

Ruth Silver is principal of Lewisham college, south London

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