Becoming a medical secretary was Pat’s dream at school and FE helped make it happen. After O-levels and CSEs, she took a two-year medical secretarial course at her local college (where she found deportment was part of the syllabus!) and then got a job in the NHS.
“As a middle child, I found it was easy to go with the flow but I’m glad I resisted the pressure to follow an academic route. Looking back this was a defining moment in terms of building my confidence and the financial independence I needed.”
After six years the medical secretarial job proved less scintillating than she’d thought, but it did allow her to continue learning, returning to college at night school to do an A level which led to a university place and a philosophy degree and then on to an MSc in artificial intelligence, followed by a PGCE.
The choice was then either back to the NHS or teaching in FE. Pat took the college route: “I chose FE because of how it had supported me, I felt it was a place where I could genuinely help and support others in their journey to fulfilling careers.” She landed a computer lecturing job at London’s College of North West London (now part of United Colleges Group) in 1991 and left some 18 years later at director level. She then became vice-principal (2009) and then principal (2015) at Harrow College, deputy CEO at HCUC and then principal and CEO at Birmingham Met College from June last year.
Pat believes in strong personal standards in leadership. “I’ve always done things very consciously - you need a clear understanding of who you are and what things you still need to develop and change - I’ve been a manager for a long time and thankfully I can assure you I’m not the same person now as I was when I first became a manager in 1999.”
“You go through a huge change taking on a strategic role and I certainly felt this when I became a vice-principal. You need to develop your resilience but also retain who you are, your integrity, being fair, your racial identity - you need to be clear about which things are your red lines. Articulate that not only in what you say but also in what you do. I’ve always been up for a challenge but equally have always made sure I could meet that challenge.”
For those starting out or seeking more leadership responsibilities, Pat cannot stress enough the importance of networking; it’s about building your own network and being part of other networks - internally, externally, and particularly at senior level - working with those who can support you and who you can also support. Network links can be long-lasting. Pat says she attended a senior leadership programme in 2003 and she’s still meeting up with the people she met there.
“Don’t wait for people to ask you but put yourself forward for things, start developing those relationships and show they matter to you and your organisation. That’s how you get that sense of recognition and pride; let people know what you are doing - there’s no point in hiding it.”
Line-managing is another key skill Pat has built up over the years. “It’s where you can demonstrate your ideas and take things forward when people are initially unsure about what you’re suggesting. It also requires you to learn to listen to and bring staff with you.
“It’s not about being aloof and seeing yourself as apart from others but knowing the potential impact of your actions. It’s being able understand how you influence others.”
In short, staff wishing to progress have to build the confidence needed to face up to a range of different challenges, to underline the fairness in their decisions and show that they know what they are talking about. “You need to do the legwork required of a senior college manager before going for a bigger job.”
Pat urges colleagues to study how other FE principals work and be aware of what they have done to get to their positions. “I’m in awe of certain people as I know what they’ve done to get there!”
Five years studying HR and management at university for six hours a week (split between seminars and lectures) plus 30 hours a week working at John Lewis where she became a staff trainer, and you’d think Sam Parrett would have walked into an HR job. But recession in the early 1990s meant HR jobs were scarce so she got her first taste of the FE sector when she joined a training provider to become one of the first NVQ assessors in retailing and management.
Sam took her assessor qualifications at Newbury College, and went on to gain a City and Guilds FE teacher’s certificate. She then helped pilot the first ever modern apprenticeships at ICL, before joining a Training and Enterprise Council as apprenticeship contracts manager. She took her first step into FE when she joined one of the contracted colleges - Bracknell and Wokingham - as apprenticeship manager in 1997.
Fast forward to 2009 and Sam became the first woman principal at Bromley College, via leadership roles at Bracknell and then vice-principal at Plymouth College.
“What stayed with me was a book I found during my induction called Women at the top in further education. It stated 17% of college principals were women in 1997, the year it was published and I entered the sector. By 2009, it was 35% and now it’s 52%! One of the great things about the FE sector is the possibility for women to progress, offering both flexibility and part-time careers.”
Sam admits she’s been fortunate to have faced very little gender discrimination. But age has been an issue. “I entered as a manager at 27 and became principal at 39. During that time several male colleagues told me I was too young to progress and I had to serve my time.”
She recalls being a potential candidate for an interim principal’s job at Plymouth College, where she was the only female on the leadership team. She mentioned the issue of her age with the woman chair of governors (raised by a male rival for the job), who said: “It has absolutely nothing to do with that … we were going to go externally for a finance expert. Never think I wouldn’t pick you because you are a woman - just recognise the strengths you have as a female leader - be prepared for these sorts of comments throughout your career. And welcome them as opportunities.”
Absence through maternity leave also raised problems. “I had children when I was 37 and 38, got back my vice-principal’s job and salary after maternity leave lasting just 20 and 17 weeks respectively but then found 75% of my responsibilities had been shared out permanently between others. That was not right, so I vowed not to be treated like that again, and so moved from Plymouth to London and my Bromley post with two very small children. Ever since, I’ve been determined that no one else should have to face that type of discrimination.
“What counts most is how you conduct yourself and relate to others. You need to stay open-minded about what is in front of you, keep yourself up to date professionally, and seek, recognise and respond to opportunities when they arise. “
Role models have played a key role in inspiring Sam to build her skills based on ‘aspiring principals’/‘excellence in leadership’ programmes, thanks in part to former Guildford College principal Lynne Sedgmore. “Meeting others on these programmes, I realised I was not alone in having problems. There’s a lot of cameraderie among women in FE.”
A standout moment was when Stella Mbubaegbu, the UK’s first black woman college principal, talked to Sam’s course cohort about her own journey and how much of herself, her values and beliefs she’d invested in her vision for her college, and how much she had challenged other leaders about aspects of race well beyond just gender. She’s gone on to help found the Black and FE Leadership Group. “It’s inspirational having people like that to help you by telling you their story - colleagues you learn from, talk to and network with.”
Vice-principal Terri Kenyon, who appointed Sam to her first FE job, impressed her immediately. “She was a classic example of women who succeed in FE. An accountant by trade, she got into teaching at night school delivering accountancy and finance courses. She had five children and made me realise FE was where you can achieve. She advised me to network.”
In fact, there have been no real glass ceilings for Sam. “Rather, I’ve just had women leaders who have encouraged and really inspired me all the way.”
Be yourself, she urges would-be leaders. “Twenty-five years ago, one college principal spoke about ‘always feeling you’ve got to dress suited and booted. If not, you’ll somehow be judged by how you look and what you wear.’ ” For several years, Sam wore the female equivalent of a man’s suit - black skirt and jacket and male-looking white shirt. “Now I feel really comfortable wearing a dress. Colourful clothes show my identity - it’s something you feel as a woman.”
Despite inspiration, mentoring and support from colleagues, the jump to principal is the biggest step you’re likely to take in FE. Colleges are very complex beasts and those who want to progress in careers sometimes have to make sacrifices and leave behind comfort blankets to honour their deep commitment to their students.
In essence, any leadership role is all about ensuring a student’s experience in the classroom enables them to achieve their best and land the best job for them. So when you feel vulnerable and feel challenged by a difficult manager, Sam's message is stay connected to your earlier experience of what’s in the classroom. “When you bottle the essence of FE, it’s the opportunity and chances that people get. That’s what I’ve experienced in my career and what I want others to do as well.”
Next week: International Women’s Day (pt 2) - interview with Liz Leek, deputy principal - culture, place and communities, Barnsley College
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