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Two strikes and she's still in

Principal who survived double failure says inspectors failed to consider progress. Joe Clancy reports

Pauline Odulinski is a survivor. Most principals, when their college is rated inadequate by inspectors, fall on their sword.

Ms Odulinski has been tainted with the stigma of inadequacy not once but twice, and she is still around to tell the tale.

Aylesbury college in Buckinghamshire, where she has been principal since 1999, first fell foul of inspectors in 2002 when leadership and management were rated inadequate.

Two years later, it became the first college in the country to fail its re-inspection since the Office for Standards in Education began inspecting colleges.

The college was then given six months to improve. Critics predicted it would be impossible to turn around a failing college in such a short space of time and Ms Odulinski would have to go.

She has since proved them all wrong and is now able to talk confidently and positively about Aylesbury's future with her still at the helm.

With the steel framework of a brand new college being erected outside her office, she said: "I am very resilient. I never felt a failure.

"I really believed in what I was trying to do. I was not going to give up at the second hurdle."

She says resilience was a factor she needed in abundance with those two damning Ofsted verdicts. She does not disagree with them but said the inspectors failed to take into account that the college was already moving forward.

"One of the things Ofsted does not do is take into account distance travelled. It just measures you at a given time," she said.

"I understand where they are coming from, but I would have appreciated a bit of consideration for the fact that the ground shoots of improvement were in place.

"In the new inspection framework, the capacity to improve will be recognised."

Aylesbury has since been rated a satisfactory college in follow-up inspections. Ms Odulinski said: "Even though we so-called failed the second time, we were getting the message that the things we were doing were right but we had not been doing them long enough.

"Also, our inspection was in May and the inspectors were looking at the previous year's data. Had it been held in September, they would have had a different picture."

She is grateful that Aylesbury's governing body and the Learning and Skills Council backed her through the troubled times. She believes they recognised the good work she had been doing in leading the college out of financial recovery.

When she took over as principal in 1999, the college was in debt, owing Pounds 2.5 million to the LSC's predecessor, the Further Education Funding Council. It was in the lowest "category C" grade of financial health but, three years later, had moved into the top "category A" bracket.

The cure for its financial ills did have side effects which contributed to its inspection failures.

"We went through a very difficult period in staff relations because we had a lot of redundancies," Ms Odulinski said.

"I would hate to be in that position again. Now we are working really well with staff on quality improvement.

"It was a very tough three years. We had to grow the college to the size we needed to be and, at the same time, work on the quality agenda. Sometimes the two things are in conflict."

Now, she is free, for the time being, of the constant monitoring and inspection. She can concentrate on rebuilding the college, physically and educationally.

The college is spending pound;30m on buildings. The first phase will be completed by September next year, with new engineering and construction workshops opening the following year.

The existing buildings, erected in 1962 with several additions since, will be demolished to make way for a state-of-the-art four-storey structure. The ground floor will resemble a shopping mall, with retail stores, a travel bureau, hairdressing salons, fitness centres, flower shops and restaurants, all open to the public.

"The old building is very dated, with a labyrinth of corridors and 14 separate entrances and exits," she said. "It was going to cost us pound;10m over 10 years just in maintenance costs.

"The new building will have an impressive business front with a wow factor to attract the business community. It will have a mall approach to learning."

The challenge for Ms Odulinski now will be not just to impress the business world, but the inspectors when they next come calling. "We are ready for them to come back any time they like," she said.


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