Sunaina Mann outside North East Surrey College of Technology
A new course helps college heads tackle the tricky issues of managing people and money

When Sunaina Mann was appointed principal of North East Surrey College of Technology (Nescot) 16 months ago, she became the first Asian woman in the UK to take charge of a further-education college.

In spite of having completed a course for senior college managers five years earlier, she was keen to get as much experience as possible and jumped at the opportunity of a short induction programme for new principals run by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL).

Before Mann's appointment in September 2005, Nescot had been declared a "failing college". In helping to turn things around, she acknowledges that she was forced to learn on the job as well as putting into practice what she picked up during her training.

That is one reason why Sunaina Mann was among the first people to put her name forward for a new qualifying programme for further education (FE) principals that gets under way later this month.

While school heads have been required to gain a leadership qualification since the mid-1990s, there has, until now, been no such requirement in FE. Having announced in September that it was introducing a qualification for new principals, the Government decided when launching its FE Bill in November that the qualification should be extended to principals moving jobs, as well as those taking up their first post.

Mann expects the programme, also run by the CEL, to take about three months. But she will only be away from college for six days and should complete much of the work through distance learning. Among the topics to be covered are governance, funding and human resources, as well as themes such as ethics and leadership in the public sector.

She is keen to pick up tips from other principals. "In education, you always want to learn and to know that you're providing the best," she explains. "You want to make sure that you're not missing out on something that will benefit your organisation."

The 32 principals starting the qualification this month include people who have been in the post for one or two years, as well as some who have been in the job far longer. As the first to take the new programme, their fees will be paid for by the Department for Education and Skills.

By the end of the year, the CEL expects up to 100 principals to have either completed or be taking the programme. Each candidate will be assigned a "critical friend", either from FE or another sector, who can advise them on their leadership style.

Lynne Sedgmore, the CEL's chief executive, says the programme will be highly personalised and reflect the demands placed on principals in colleges. "The most effective leadership learning is work-related," she says. "We are not talking about academic learning that's separate to what people do in the workplace."

Alison Clarke, principal of Canterbury College, is looking forward to work-shadowing a leader from outside FE, as well as learning more about finance and strategy. Before moving to the college in 1992, initially as personnel manager, she worked for the Storehouse retail group.

"Working with other managers is part of any leadership training in the retail sector. You get to understand the pressures that people are under and bounce ideas off them," says Clarke, who was appointed principal at Canterbury a year ago after eight months as acting principal.

After 22 years as a principal, Ioan Morgan is likely to be among the most experienced people on the first programme. He is in charge of his third FE college - Warwickshire College - and is in the process of overseeing his fourth merger.

Morgan believes the qualification should focus on issues such as how to manage change. "I find that I'm learning something every day," he says. "The challenges of the job now are quite different from when I first took it on."

While it might appear that FE is catching up with schools, says Morgan, college principals need different training to head teachers. "The role of an FE principal is much more complex," he says. "We don't get any of the support that schools receive from local authorities. We are stand-alone corporations, and so a qualification of this sort is certainly long overdue."