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Work + experience = expert

Estelle Maxwell meets a pioneering principal who always travels hopefully.

Michael McAllister has packed more into his 37 years in further education than most could hope to achieve in a lifetime. Nonetheless, the first nationally-elected president of the Association of Principals of Colleges feels the time is right for retirement and is embracing the prospect of change like an old friend.

It is hard to believe the principal of Blackpool and The Fylde College is touching 60. His enthusiasm for his job is still tangible after almost 20 years, but he wants to leave "on a high", to move on, to return to consultancy work - and definitely to revisit India.

The merest hint of a return to old haunts in Bhopal where he once worked as a consultant to the Technical Teachers' Training Institute, and see again the Taj Mahal, brings a glint to his eye.

"I love India. It is a learning experience," he states with simplicity. Indeed Mr McAllister loves globe-trotting, regarding travel as an education in itself.

His packed curriculum vitae details consultancy work around the world, including Nigeria, India, Kenya, Chile, the United States and Fiji, and he hopes to fit in more travel combined with work during his retirement.

He has published numerous educational research papers, and was a founder member of the Association for College Management: "The time was right to form the organisation. We were very keen to recognise the importance of teams in college management." He is also a director of the Colleges' Employers' Forum and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Approachable yet simultaneously self-contained, he speaks frankly of his belief in the need for change, post-incorporation, but is visibly less comfortable discussing himself. A small notice in his office shows the determined character beneath the benign surface. It says: "I have never made a mistake. Once I thought I had, but I was wrong."

His family background was humble: "My father was a labourer in Hull," he says. Like his three brothers, he opted for a career in education and progressed up the ladder. In the past he has worked to the point of collapse, but claims to have now learned how to compartmentalise "in order to cope with the pressures in my life".

While a lecturer in physics he was a member of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and only recently cut his subscription to the union. "I believe NATFHE has lost its way over the professional contracts," he says.

His approach to management at the growing college which has 6,900 full-time equivalent students is clear-cut: "I think most people would consider me an autocratic old bugger. But I do not believe that is true.

"I clearly distinguish between administrative management and governance, and my job is to operate at the management and government level. I do no administration what-so-ever and nor do my managers. I expect them to manage.

"I would go to the wall to defend responsible staff participation in decision making but I do not confuse this with democracy."

No stranger to the negotiating table at a national and a local level - just over 50 per cent of his college staff and all his managers are on new contracts - he claims to be driven by the need to reach agreements which offer something to everyone.

"A lot of people would call me confrontational in style because I believe in being up-front. I believe in win-win situations where both sides gain something.

"It is of no interest to me to screw the lecturing staff down. They are the most important asset of the college, but this does not mean to say you have to give them everything they want, because I am also responsible for handling Pounds 18 million of tax-payers' money a year.

"I think most of my staff believe what I say - that the professional contract recognises what they do. The problem is many of them are committed members of a trade union which says 'Do not sign'. This poses them a great dilemma which I recognise. I also believe this has led to problems for the union with managers who are either not in NATFHE, or are in it but do not recognise what it is saying."

Since incorporation, the college has responded well to the opportunity for self-development. "We have just had an inspection and received ones and twos across the board. We are known for our innovation and entrepreneurship at this college, and generate millions of pounds in commercial activity," he says.

"When the bottom dropped out of the manufacturing market a few years ago we just had to look for alternatives. Our engineering lecturers started working flexible hours even though they were on Silver Book contracts and do a lot of commercial work.

"Our off-shore survival training centre at Fleetwood is run as a commercial venture where we train sea-going cadets, and the benefits to us are enormous. "

He also believes in encouraging his staff to broaden their experience by working abroad. "When I worked for UNESCO in Nigeria I was under 30, but my title was 'UNESCO expert'," he says.

"I have never forgotten how you were able to go ahead and carry out something you believed to be a good idea, and actively encourage my staff to work overseas.

"More than 50 members of my staff have now gained such experience - it is an opportunity for them to give something to the country and learn so much more."

With retirement looming he is now looking forward to the next stage in his life, and is confident that he leaves behind a well-motivated and well-managed college.

"I am fairly sure I am respected by my staff," he says. "I want to be respected. I know I am not popular over professional contracts, but they will look back and recognise eventually that I was right about them."

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