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The college head of department position is integral to the successful running of any further education (FE) institution. Heads of departments manage the day-to-day running of the teaching and research aspects of a department. A college head of department is a key member of the senior leadership team, operating in a role that will include strategic responsibilities. They will be expected to actively promote an FE institution’s high-performance culture and ethos in this position.
A report published by the Social Market Foundation illustrates that “in colleges, leaders must provide a strategic vision, manage college finances, ensure a reputation for quality teaching and learning remains high, run a large people-centred business and deliver clear accountability”.
Sweeping reforms of the FE sector are under way with a multi-million pound investment announced by the government in 2020. Education secretary Gavin Williamson laid out plans to strengthen leadership across the sector, with the college head of department role well placed to benefit from the cash injection.
Within this new funding, around £14 million has been earmarked “to help improve leadership and governance across the further education sector so more people receive the best education and training possible”.
A proven track record of leading teams in the successful achievement of challenging targets is essential. Displaying evidence of ensuring quality improvement measures are firmly embedded will also be desirable.
Pasquale Fasulo, head of the department for creative and digital at Bristol College, states that apart from his graphic design degree and Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) teaching qualification, he “recently took a qualification designed for FE middle managers. It included running a project alongside the course — my course theme was curriculum design and development — an area I’m quite passionate about.”
He goes on to say that his college allowed him to “undertake professional development courses covering areas such as health and safety, safeguarding and staff training”. All of which is exactly the type of experience that will put you ahead of the curve when applying for the college head of department role.
Meanwhile, Lesley Wilson, head of catering services at Barnsley College, South Yorkshire, built up experience of her industry through [working] in contract catering services for five years as an area manager handling food services in places like factories, hospitals and office blocks”. After gaining work experience in the industry, she took up part-time teaching posts in the FE sector.
Fasulo explains that “you need a broad understanding of every subject in your remit; you don’t have to be able to teach them all but you do need an ability to develop ideas”.
“Being a graphic designer overlaps with some of the other technologies and gives me a strong sense of design that can influence all creative subjects,” he adds.
Wilson has found that in her role as college head of department, budget planning is very important; she must keep her department within a £700,000 budget. This has led her to the conclusion that you must have “good financial acumen, understand costs and income and be commercially-minded – it’s not just giving a service on its own but offering what people really want to buy”.
Sarah Seaman, head of department for hair, beauty and catering at Barnsley College, explains that she must be “operational but also strategic”. She agrees with Wilson that balancing a budget is among the most challenging aspects of her role.
Given that the position requires one to “maximise opportunities for improvement, focus on quality and ensure students get the very best college experience — I do a high level of monitoring teaching, learning and assessment, and seek out new ventures/ideas that may enhance their programme”. Seaman adds: “We equip our students to be industry-ready.”
In terms of the most essential qualities needed to be a head of department, Seaman explains that those in her role must be “passionate, student-focused, motivated, enthusiastic and supportive — it’s the only way to get your team to work hard for you.”
Wilson says that a background relevant to the department, in her case catering, has been crucial and she has found it helps to “be a good people manager — I have to ensure 28 staff are motivated and maintain service, presentation and personal hygiene standards”.
Certain college departments do not require specific qualifications, although Wilson has found they can help. “A hospitality degree or HND (Higher National Diploma), though not essential, is very important in understanding the higher levels of business management.”
She adds: “Many people are very good operational caterers and supervisors but find it hard to take that step up. A teaching background in hospitality, again not essential, helps you understand the students — your customers — and how timetables work.”
Seaman states that for her role “you need a specialist subject qualification and have to have worked in industry, plus you need a teaching qualification (a Certificate in Education [Cert. Ed], if following a vocational route or a PGCE, if you are a graduate).”
“Management qualifications, while helpful, are generally not needed to gain a management post – often experience counts for more,” she adds, though these were achieved in the job. “I had no management pedigree when I started but have since gained a level 5 in management (equivalent to an HND or foundation degree) and am working towards a level 7 NVQ diploma in strategic management (equivalent to a Masters). I did my initial training as an apprentice, although a full-time programme may suit some people better.”
Talent.com puts the median salary for a college head of department to be £42,777 in the UK with entry level positions starting at £34,726 per year, while most experienced workers bring home just under £50k at around £49,558 per year. For comparison, the Office for National Statistics puts the UK’s median annual pay for full-time employees at £31,461 for the tax year ending April 2020.