'We need to prepare the next generation of college principals'

It's time to start cultivating the next generation of college leaders, says the Education and Training Foundation's Sir Frank McLoughlin

Sir Frank McLoughlin

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Some could say it was ever thus as leaders and their institutions in the further education (FE) and training sector face a challenging number of years ahead. Some are a constant, such as funding and the need to rightly ensure ever-improving standards. Newer challenges include the increasing scale and complexity of colleges and larger training providers as well as the welcome spotlight on the sector as being critical to the future of UK plc. We are at the heart of the government’s new industrial strategy, commitment to social mobility and meeting the accelerated skills needs posed by Brexit. It is vital that we make these a success.

One additional challenge that is often overlooked, but certainly cannot be allowed to slip under the radar is succession planning for the sector’s senior leadership. As I write, 45 per cent of principals are over 55 and traditionally a large majority retire at or around the age of 60. It is therefore pressing that we identify and prepare their successors.

College leaders

Leadership is the key to the success of any organisation, as many colleges have learned, occasionally to their cost when things have gone wrong. While we have to always address the needs of today, tomorrow is never far away. In my experience, when there are changes at the top without effective succession planning, or individuals who can take over the reins seamlessly, there can be an unsettling effect on a college or training provider. Developing the leaders of the future will provide the stability, confidence and ambition needed for the sector. Investing in this cadre could not be more integral to the future of individual colleges and UK plc and it means we need to start now.

Following the Department for Education-backed strategic leadership programme for current principals and chief executives – which the Education and Training Foundation runs in partnership with Saïd Business School, University of Oxford – we swiftly saw a new challenge. We need to prepare those who will be principals or chief executives within the next few years. As any leader knows, the first year of stepping up to take over the reins of an organisation can make or break both them and the organisation.

It is therefore vital that they are prepared on day one. The DfE agrees. Hence why we, in partnership again with Saïd Business School, have now launched a new programme – starting in March, for 75 senior leaders across FE who are expecting to become a principal or chief executive within the next two years.

Unparalleled opportunities

It will combine the development of the technical expertise required by any leader, with unparalleled opportunities for reflection, personal development and networking with fellow professionals in one of the world’s leading business schools. The lasting legacy for participants, apart from preparing them for their roles as future leaders, is that they will join an alumni network of over 1,500 members, from 43 countries. As part of the alumni community of the business school, they can continue to develop thought-leadership and practice to benefit the whole sector.

Years of neglect of leadership training in the sector is now being reversed with the help of investment from the DfE, the expertise of a world-leading business school and the experience of those who have led successful FE institutions. A true tripartite partnership.

I think this is a fantastic time to be planning for the future leadership of the sector. There are challenging but exciting times ahead for the sector and to make the most of them we need to prepare the next generation of skilled and visionary leaders. This is a hugely prestigious development for our sector and indicates that we are moving to centre stage for the first time in many years and taking control of our own destiny.

Sir Frank McLoughlin is associate director for leadership at the Education and Training Foundation. 

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Sir Frank McLoughlin

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