From education to employment

Il Principe, a handbook for career-makers in further education

Geoff Brown

To start, a note of encouragement: do not think that those who climb to the top need any special talents.

With a sharp political nose and the courage to seize the moment you need only the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

From the very beginning, be sure to take your reputation seriously.

However, if it fits the time, as it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, do not let this put you off being a ‘wild youth’. It does no harm to spend your early years as a young union activist and thereafter dropping occasional hints of having been one, as this will assist your standing as a doughty fighter.

We should remember the leading polytechnic director who boasted of his youthful prowess as a street fighter. This did not weaken his credibility in the corridors of Whitehall. Indeed time spent as a member of the hard left may provide some useful political education.

Not least, such a record may act as a smokescreen during later career moves, confusing colleagues as to your motives and objectives. However these early years are spent, be sure to make yourself popular with a reputation for good humour and a general concern for others but take care not to be over familiar. Intimacy can lead to nasty rumours.

Be sure to understand that the time and effort given to such schmoozing is a valuable, and indeed necessary, investment in your future.

Have no scruples in how you learn the ropes and establish your network.

For example, there should be no hesitation operating as the principal’s secret informant in the staff room. In return for the help rendered, you are entitled to expect that conversations with the principal will yield valuable advance notice of new posts and other changes as well as lesser titbits that can be used to establish yourself as someone in the know.

It should go without saying that keeping your eye out for the main chance must never slip your mind. Whatever your status as a union activist – promotion opportunities must be seized without scruple. Neither betraying colleagues nor breach of union policy should be ruled out.

Similarly with the elimination of potential rivals for promotion by whatever means needed to advance. Do not forget, though, that such perfidy has a price. There will be those who bear a grudge and spread their version of the truth at every opportunity. So careful judgement is needed to assess when to sacrifice scruple and take the opportunity.

All politics is local, therefore establishing a local base is a sine qua non.

Much of the time this requires is no more than an extension of what is already being done in the college. The network must be established, respecting the existing ‘powers that be’ with uncounted hours spent as the one always willing to buy a round and support the local interest.

Beginning now to mix seriously with others on the political career path, it will become clear to you there are no particular qualifications required to get to the top apart from those already mentioned.

Campaigning for a good cause such as defending a local NHS facility can now be the key to candidacy for high public office, such as when the opportunity arises with the current MP nearing retirement.

The success or otherwise of the campaign is a secondary matter but again, do not underestimate the labours involved. There will need to be many a pint sunk round tables in local pubs and clubs. But only through such efforts can nomination for office be credible.

You must understand that high politics is a dangerous affair…

with great prizes for the winners and often a heavy price paid by the losers. A strong local base will not suffice as protection when national figures take part. They may pick and choose what local figures they will. At the same time they also are bound by the laws of political calculation.

Every decision has a cost which must be paid. Thus losing out in contesting a nomination does not mean all investment is wasted. Rather, ensuring your own interests are at the heart of any such agreement, you may agree to withdraw peacefully and so put yourself in a more favourable light in any future applications for promotion.

Such deals with political superiors must take into account the powers and objectives of those now sometimes referred to in the popular media as ‘the movers and shakers’ or even ‘the local mafia.’ Politics is no longer dominated by a municipal pride but by that business philosophy known as ‘entrepreneurialism’ (Harvey 1989). Cities now compete.

Forget the foolishness of ‘Investors in People’, think rather of ‘Investors in Property’. 

Big is beautiful in the provision of palaces of culture, airports, universities and last but not least, colleges. To this end property development is the golden key. Forget the foolishness of ‘Investors in People’, think rather of ‘Investors in Property’.

As cities are reshaped with fancy flats, shops and grand office blocks for prestigious tenants, so should the city leaders require what is in effect your property, the only question is ‘How much?’ Be sure, though, as the bulldozers move in to your valuable city centre site, be ready to proclaim that the shift of college resources is being directed to meet the needs of those whose need is greatest.

It should be added that property, or rather the use of it, can be dispensed as a gift to worthy organisations in the locality, an excellent means to build the local base that conveniently escapes the prying eyes of the auditors.

It is barely worth mentioning that all principals worthy of the name require a tame chair of governors, one who is, for whatever reason, afraid of you and will accept your vision and the plans that flow from it without serious question.

As the market becomes god and government hastens to castrate the local state, so college incorporation or amalgamation seems inevitable, transforming the power of the principal within the local elite: no longer employee but player.

As always, size matters and understanding the new political environment, the possibilities, nay the necessity of expansion – eat or be eaten – means cultivating political contacts. When the moment arrives to merge the city’s colleges, your political preparation will be decisive.

Any weakness and you will be lost. There are in practice no college mergers, only takeovers. Ask yourself ‘Will you eat or be eaten?’

Do not spend too much time on schmoozing in Whitehall and Westminster.

The key contacts are in the Town Hall and surrounding pubs and hotels.   Still, the advantages gained by a ‘heads-up’ about a new funding stream from some ministerial flunkey are real. Seizing them quickly brings the greatest benefit, recognising that as others follow so qualifying criteria will tighten.

Be careful though. As the creativity involved in interpreting these criteria begins to backfire, so the life span of these monies is often curtailed. And there may be determined journalists digging into the detail, on occasion assisted by whistleblowers trying to revenge themselves on perceived injustices. All the more reason to move with speed.

Be ready for the ‘gift from heaven’, that is, being in the right place at the right time and when it comes, use it to the full. If a huge circus comes to town and just for a fortnight, there is money being spent like no tomorrow. Remember that colleges have resources that can be turned to many uses and rented out at a most lucrative price, no matter if in the form of goods that have a long term value rather than cash.

Be sure to keep your subordinates in their proper place.

Not just respect but fear is the appropriate attitude for them to hold towards you. This by no means excludes the use of favours such as the chance to travel briefly on college business, petty promotions and the like.

Be sure to dispense these trifles not only to sustain motivation but also to keep your underlings under control, factionalising against each other rather than against you. Our motto remains ‘Divide et impera’.

Always be ready to use the talents of others.

Even those who on the face of it – such as those with a record of being union activists – may superficially appear unreliable. Experience shows that once they have taken the management shilling the opposite is generally the case.  

There is always the danger of managers fleeing the pressures involved. This can simply be dealt with by giving them a salary above any they can obtain elsewhere. Take care with the ‘overachievers’ who, in seeking to emulate your success by being as ruthlessness as you are, may lack the skills and resources, so their bullying may become known. Such publicity can only reflect badly on you.

Heading up the greasy pole, it is less a matter of not forgetting where you came from than of recognising that being seen as ‘one of us’, a local, remains as important as ever. In doing so, it does no harm to let it drop that you are continuing to refuse invitations to take up a national role.

Coupled with this it is of the greatest importance that, as the empire grows, you present yourself as accountable, indeed ‘squeaky clean’ on all matters concerning money. Failure to do so will be taken as an invitation by your enemies to label you as corrupt.

A target driven culture becoming the norm is convenient for keeping clean hands. Your subordinates may well be forced to bend or even break the rules to achieve the figures demanded of them but can easily be disowned if the auditors should spot their ‘creativity’.

Be careful too with your powers of appointment when it comes to your power base in the locality.   Nothing points more quickly to corruption than cronies with jobs in the college. Some below you on the chain of command may well see themselves as secret oppositionists. Do not let this perturb you overmuch. They may successfully resist the tendency to bully and nevertheless achieve the goals set them. In which case, so what if they are secretly disloyal? So long as the money comes in.

Remember that Deep Throat had it right.

The key advice to understanding the world and successfully using that knowledge, is ‘Follow the money’ (Pakula et al 1976).

When cost cutting is of the essence and staffing is your main cost, then the prize comes to that principal who most successfully introduces new, cheaper contracts. If you can, present this as a step forwards with phrasing such as ‘bringing the training to those that need it, where they need it’.

Then, while confusing the opposition from below, you will doubly strengthen your position with those above you. Encourage your managers to be similarly inventive. For example, when funds flow to those with high pass rates, they must shift the curriculum to easier courses where everyone will pass.

Ruthlessness does not mean being an assassin with the dagger in your hand.

That is for others to carry out on your behalf. It makes sense to have a deputy assigned this task, well rewarded to ensure they do not stray from their role, leaving your image untainted. Do not underestimate the difficulties involved.

There will be times when those with a different political agenda to yours will challenge you, however bluff your manner. Under no circumstances lose control of yourself. Do not say or, yet more seriously, write what might discredit your image.

In a world without age limits, you can go on and on but only so long as the politics will allow. When Whitehall falls to hostile forces, the political will from above that wants a big college to be a success disappears.

Never say die but this may be the time to abdicate….

Geoff Brown

An extract from Caliban’s Dance: FE after The Tempest, edited by Maire DaleyKevin Orr and Joel Petrie.  Trentham Books, UCL IOE Press, 2020.

Save 20% on the paperback with code FVCAL at UCL IOE Press.


Harvey, D, 1989, From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism, Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 71, No. 1, pp. 3-17

Pakula, A, Bernstein, C, Woodward, B, 1976, ‘All the President’s Men’, viewed 11 January 2017

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