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Why leadership training is more than monkey business

Courses to update college chiefs on the sector's rapidly changing economic and regulatory landscape have had a mixed reception: some have welcomed the chance to share problems with colleagues; others say it's just navel-gazing. Chloe Stothart reports

What do rhesus monkeys and the managers of London's transport system have in common? There are various answers - not all of them complimentary to the people who run the Tube. But the one that matters is that both simians and industry leaders have featured on a leadership training programme for college principals.

The Principals' Qualifying Programme (PQP) is a compulsory course that new college heads must take within three years of taking up their job. But seasoned principals have also signed up because they want to hone their management skills.

Set up in March 2007 and run by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), the course covers work-shadowing, an appraisal of the principal by their governors, colleagues and other organisations they work with, as well as work with coaches and book-based studies on a range of subjects, including accounts, estates and finance, problem-solving with peers and theories of leadership.

There seems little doubt of the need for training to support principals, given the complexity and changing nature of the job. The modern principal is less the chief operating officer running his or her college every day, and more of a chief executive officer employed to give vision and strategic direction to their business.

The scale of colleges' activity has also increased markedly in the past decade: many now boast incomes of several tens of millions of pounds.

Add to this the challenges faced by colleges because of structural upheaval, such as the winding up of the Learning and Skills Council and the permanent expectation that the sector should be ready to respond rapidly to shifting economic and skills needs, and it becomes clear that the job of principal is one of almost continual change management.

So the question is not whether there is a need for some sort of training to support principals, but whether the content of the PQP course is all it could be.

It is certainly arguable that the content and delivery need to be reconsidered: while it ethuses many principals, it clearly manages to cause others serious irritations.

Anne Murdoch, principal of Newbury College, West Berkshire, is a fan of the programme. She followed managers at Transport for London on her work- shadowing placement and found that they, too, had to grapple with relationships with suppliers and customers.

"We shared ideas, and subsequently one of my managers has gone for work- shadowing with them too," she said.

Dr Murdoch also welcomed the chance to discuss ideas with her fellow principals.

"There are only a small number of principals who have complained about it," she said. "The PQP has given me a great opportunity to do things I would not have had the chance to do otherwise."

Another principal on the course, who wished to remain anonymous, said it contained too much work about theory and not enough on applied problem- solving.

"It's an executive coaching programme," he said. "It is very challenging, and if you were sceptical you might say there is lots of navel-gazing. Rather than being purely practical, it is about reflection, theories of emotional intelligence, and I think a lot of people have struggled to come to terms with the soul-searching part of it."

In particular, he was nonplussed by some of the leadership theory.

"I can remember talking about attachment theory in monkeys and I thought it was quite bizarre," he said. "You could look around the room and see people thinking, `What does this have to do with my day-to-day job?'"

Some of the coaches were not further education practitioners and did not seem to understand the principal's job.

"The problem is not so much the content as the delivery," he said. "The idea that you can take coaches and apply them to any situation needs to be challenged."

The opportunities to solve problems with groups of other principals and to be appraised by their colleagues, governors and others, were useful. But out of his particular group of 20, about four principals had dropped out because they felt the course was not giving them what they wanted.

He was opposed to the compulsory nature of the programme, pointing out that, by contrast, university vice-chancellors are not compelled to do similar training.

"We are independent corporations, but every so often we get these government edicts which make you question how independent we are," he said.

One renowned workplace psychologist is a keen supporter of interpersonal skills on management courses.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, said: "There is a lot of research that shows people get stressed at work because people who manage them are not socially or interpersonally skilled. They can overload people and do not read the signs when they are not coping. They give unrealistic deadlines and do not give people control over their jobs."

On its own, the programme may not be able to solve all of FE's leadership problems. The Principals' Professional Council, which represents college heads and senior staff, has seen the number of disputes it handles rise to an all-time high, with more than half of these caused by a breakdown in relationships between principals and their employing authority.

Michael Thrower, general secretary of the council, said the caseload showed that principals needed guidance on working with other agencies that have a hand in directing the college, such as the governors, the LSC, and, in future, the local authority.

He said the principals represented by his organisation may have been in the job too long to be required to do the course, but noted that adjustments to it could help principals to deal with some of the other bodies responsible for making decisions in colleges.

"It is clear from our cases that principals are not getting the help they need," he said.

There will be an opportunity in the coming months to make some tweaks to the course. The LSIS has commissioned an evaluation of the programme, due to be completed by the end of February. A modified version of the course will then be tested out on a group of principals. And it is then likely that there will be further changes in response to the participants' evaluations.

Any alterations will depend on the results of the study, but Tony Nelson, interim director of the programme at LSIS, said he had considered adding discussions about how to work with boards of governors as colleges become more self-regulating, and examining the impact of leadership on employers and other organisations that work with colleges. He said the courses were an attempt to give principals the tools to adapt to a changing economic and regulatory landscape.

"I am not surprised there has been varied feedback," he said, "but there seems to be something there for everyone, so it seems our approach is working."

Mr Nelson said the overall drop-out rate was about 4 per cent - excluding maternity leave, moving out of FE and other causes unrelated to the programme.

He also noted that a few tweaks had already been made since the first group of principals joined it. Attachment theory - principals may or may not be glad to hear - is no longer being covered, so those monkeys have now been dropped.

The Principals' Qualifying Programme costs just over Pounds 6,000, but Pounds 5,000 of this is paid by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Pounds 1,000 by the college, and the rest by the LSIS; 130 people have graduated or are already taking the course; another 140 will start in March.


The younger sibling of the Principals' Qualifying Programme (PQP) is the Aspiring Principals and Senior Leaders Programme.

As the title suggests, it is aimed at people who have been in senior jobs for at least a year and hope to become principals or be more effective in their roles.

The course includes problem-solving in groups and dealing with real and fictional case studies. There are contributions from experienced principals.

One person who took the course is Steve Davies, vice-principal at Sparsholt College in Hampshire. "I found it very interesting, he said. "It was an excellent opportunity to network with other colleagues in the same position. It encourages you to reflect and look at how you can improve and do things differently."

He said his group had to tackle a case study about a college taking over a failing institution, which, by coincidence, chimed with what his college was doing at the time. He said the experience helped him to ask the right questions of senior management during the real takeover.

The participants on his course have stayed in touch and meet twice a year. "We can now contact each other and talk through issues and come up with solutions between us," he said.

An evaluation of the programme in October 2007 found that 90 per cent of people who responded to the survey would recommend the course to others. Just over a quarter said it had helped them get promotion, and 45 per cent said it prepared them for a principal post.

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