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Education briefing - Recruitment of a new College Principal: How best is best practice?

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Briefings


Selecting a new Principal is one of the most important (and difficult) decisions any Further Education or Sixth Form College can take. It is a key responsibility that falls on Corporation members and can have a far reaching impact on whether a College thrives or fails. Unfortunately, there are regular examples of the process not being effective.

The rules governing the recruitment of a Principal are firmly embedded in the College’s Instrument and Articles of Government. Typically, the process has required a national advert followed by the appointment of a selection panel of at least five members of the Corporation who decide on the arrangements for selection, carry out interviews and make a recommendation to the Corporation. These provisions were designed to ensure that the recruitment process is robust and that Corporation members discharge their obligations to appoint the best individual possible to lead the institution. The arrangements have been in place for a significant period of time and have served institutions reasonably well over the years.

Schedule 4 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 is silent on the the process to be adopted for the apppointment of a Principal so colleges are free to adopt different recruitment processes if they wish. The question is should they?

Should the senior postholder recruitment provisions be removed from the Articles?

Some colleges have removed the descriptive detail and replaced it with generic wording that reserves to the Corporation wide discretion as to how senior posts can be filled. This is not necessarily an issue but it will remain the case that any attempt to recruit a Principal will need to be carried out in a rigorous way and a written structure (whether it is in the Articles, standing orders or elswhere) will assist the Corporation to discharge its obligation to secure the best available candidate.

Is a national advert necessary?

Many colleges have expressed concerns about the cost of such advertising. Nevertheless, most have retained the practice at least for Principal appointments because of the high profile of the role. Many colleges have given themseleves more flexibility to dispense with advertising for appointments to other senior posts in appropriate circumstances – typically where there is a desire to provide opportunities for career development for internal candidates.

It should be borne in mind that the best appointments usually occur when the successful individual has been selected from a strong field of high quality candidates. Where candidates are seen as a shoo-in, it can impact on their credibility and ability to lead the institution.

Is it appropriate to use a headhunter?

Specialist search firms can provide a useful way of enhancing the field of candidates for interview and can take on some of the initial work of vetting. They can also help to design assessment centres that will test a candidate’s abilities in a number of different ways beyond a basic interview process. Clearly, this support comes at an additional cost which Corporations will need to bear in mind. Clear terms of engagement will always be important.

Should the selection panel include individuals who are not members of the Corporation?

Many Corporations would see significant value in having someone from outside the organisation with relevant experience and expertise providing a view of the candidates for the most critical executive role in the College. This external view may be of particular value where an internal candidate is involved and there is a risk of Corporation members gravitiating towards a known quantity.

The starting position is that under the standard Articles selection panels have been required to be made up of Corporation members because Corporations are responsible for the whole of the decision making process. So, adding non-Corporation members to the selection panel could not be done without amending the Articles.

A key question will be whether it is appropriate for the Corporation to dilute its sovereignty over such decisions. It is submitted that there would be some risks associated with taking such a step because there is merit in the Corporation owing the whole process. Further, the external view could be sought without selection panel membership. By way of example, an outgoing Principal may often be called on to express a view on candidates to the selection panel but would not be included on the panel itself. There is no reason why the selection panel could not ask a third party to be involved in the recruitment process and provide a view based on observation of the candidates. Again, establishing clear terms of engagement wirth the third party will be important.

The FE sector may wish to look to how the HE sector appoints to their senior position, whether that be a Vice-Chancellor or Principal. In most cases, executive search consultants are engaged to use their network, source arrangements and provide in-house capability to create a strong field and identify candidates who would otherwise not consider themselves as suitable candidates for the role. By having that external eye on the process, a balanced field of candidates can be drawn up and an active consideration of an institution’s commitment to equality and diversity can also be observed.


Increasingly, Corporations are looking to obtain specialist advice and support in this area. It goes without saying that this is permissible as governors have a duty to act in the best interests of the College. It will be important to ensure that any external advice and support is clearly documented but that ultimately it is the Corporation that makes any final decision.

Any college that is about to embark on such an important job as recruiting a Principal may wish to speak to one of our FE governance specialists to discuss the process. It is rarely a one size fits all approach and whilst some Corporations feel comfortable in what is needed to appoint to such an important position, others may benefit from legal advice and support when handling such an issue.

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