A distinct lack of principals

Fewer college managers are applying to become top dogs, and more principals are retiring early. Simon Midgley assesses the Government's solution
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The Independent Online

Just where is the next generation of college leaders going to come from? That is the billion-dollar question taxing the further education community. Fewer and fewer college managers nowadays aspire to be principals. A few years ago, there were up to 60 applicants for each post. Now there may be only five or six, and their quality is not necessarily high.

In the trade's jargon, this is being dubbed "a succession planning problem". Over the past three years there has been a 40 per cent turnover in senior staff, according to the Association of Colleges.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that principals are retiring more quickly than previously, and that the colleges' workforce is ageing. Meanwhile, the demands made on colleges by the Government and the Learning and Skills Council, which runs further education, continue to grow.

The hassle involved in being a college principal is increasingly seen as not worth a candle. Why, potential principals are saying to themselves, should I put myself through all that? Over the past few years, some 20 per cent of colleges have been graded poorly in Ofsted inspection reports for the quality of their management and leadership. Recently, however, there have been signs that an increasing number of colleges are turning things around and achieving good grades. But improving the quality of management and leadership and increasing the pool of potential new leaders remains the crucial issue.

Indeed, the Education Minister Margaret Hodge was so concerned about these questions that she decided to create a new Centre for Excellence in Leadership, a college focused on the needs of the further-education sector. Next month sees the launch of the new centre at an event in central London, to be addressed by Anita Roddick and Andrew Mawson, the executive director of the Community Action Network.

The training offered by the centre will be delivered by a team drawn from the Lancaster University Management School, the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), Ashridge Management College and the Open University. The initial study programmes will begin this November, and more will follow in 2004.

Unlike the National College for School Leadership, which is based in Nottingham, the further-education leadership college will be a largely virtual, web-based entity. It will receive £15m of public funding over the next three years. After that, it is expected to become largely self-financing. Its core staff will number a mere 12, and it will draw on the leadership expertise of its supporting institutions. More than anything else, the college will be anxious to avoid the tongue-lashing that the School Leadership college received in its early days, when critics said it wasslow to respond to customer needs and too bureaucratic.

According to Chris Hughes, who is the chief executive of the LSDA, customised training will be crucial to the college's success. And it will be commercially driven, in so far as it needs to attract customers willing to pay for the (albeit Government-subsidised) cost of the management training on offer. Managers often have strong views about the nature of their management training and how it should be delivered. To give them as many options as possible, courses will be available via the college's website at www.inspirelearning.org.uk, face to face at the Lancaster University Management School and Ashridge Management College, or via local colleges in hired venues such as hotels.

"The synergy of the four backing institutions is very powerful," says Hughes. "The Open University is world class in distance and e-learning. Ashridge is world-class in corporate leadership training, and has a lot of blue-chip clients, including the BBC. Lancaster University management school is the most consistently highly rated management school in the country. And LSDA is a well-established sectoral body, with expertise in FE, and learning and skills."

Many in the sector believe that there is an acute need for this new, more centralised and systematic approach to developing leadership potential. It is imperative, Hughes thinks, to move from conventional management styles, involving the efficient deployment of resources, to transformational management. The latter involves strategy, thinking about the bigger picture and stretching an organisation to improve student learning and achievement.

The centre's core programmes, according to Graham Peeke, its interim director, will include a senior leadership programme for aspiring principals, which the Government eventually wants to make a compulsory qualification for principalship. There will also be an induction programme for new college principals, and a modular management programme for middle managers. A college prospectus is being published. "Over the past few years, there has been a perception that college leadership has not been as good as it should have been," says Peeke. "We want to re-enthuse and re-energise people to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

One of the college's tasks will be to spot talent and to develop a fast-track route whereby managers can climb the promotional ladder quickly. According to Sue Dutton, the AoC's deputy chief executive officer, it is important to raise the aspiration of potential leaders and to deploy modern management developmental models, such as mentoring and coaching.

Peter Rushton, a former principal of Carmel College in Merseyside, is working with the Further Education National Training Organisation (Fento) to identify the skills and attributes that leadership coaches and mentors need, and to create a programme for developing leaders through coaching and mentoring. The results of their work will be available next spring.

It is important says Nadine Cartner, head of policy at the Association for College Management, to search out leaders at all levels of a college. "We hope that this initiative will not concentrate simply on senior managers who are aspiring to be principals, but that it recognises that leadership takes place across an organisation in teaching, in the classroom and in many aspects of an organisation's work," she says.

"We want the college to reach deep into organisations, developing people's potential at all levels. And to have a holistic vision of what leadership is, remembering that the most important quality of a leader in our knowledge-based economy is to recognise and nurture the potential of people."