Review of the ETF CEO Resources: Interview with Sharon Thomas, Principal of the Adult College of Barking and Dagenham

Sharon Thomas is Head of Employment and Skills for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and Principal of the Adult College which the Borough maintains. The college operates from two main sites, as well as from several school and community venues, and supports approximately 1,500 learners per annum, offering a range of qualification- and non-qualification-based courses from pre-entry level to level 3, as well as apprenticeships.

Image of Sharon Thomas

Sharon has been Principal for just over two years and has participated in leadership CPD from the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) for many years. When the ETF launched a series of new online resources for CEOs and Principals to support CPD in the day-to-day environment, she was immediately attracted by the Financial Sustainability module.


Amongst all the CPD offers that you receive, what attracted you to try these resources?

Local authority finance management and reliance on external funding is challenging so when I saw the module on Financial Sustainability, I thought I would try it. I liked the format of the module and the fact that it was structured around a series of videos with CEOs and Principals on key topics. I set aside some time every Friday afternoon for CPD and found it really valuable, although it has proved difficult to maintain this during the Covid-19 pandemic.


How did you find the module?

The module I did was really useful and very clear. I like the way it’s chunked into bite-size pieces so you can go in and look at particular topics. They’re not long and arduous and they’re packaged up in a really nice way. I particularly liked hearing about the day-to-day experience of other CEOs and Principals and how they’ve applied ideas in their situations. The examples that are given make good sense, they’re really pragmatic.


What did you find useful in practice?

I deal with financial issues on a day-to-day basis and the modules gave me new ideas for questions I should be asking. One of the CEOs in the module said, “If you don’t get your finances right, you don’t have an organisation.” Whilst I know this, of course, the comment made me focus on really working through what it means, not only for me, but also for my senior managers.

As a result of that, I’ve got my local finance manager coming to my senior management meetings on a regular basis and I’ve got all of my senior managers making sure that they take more responsibility for their finances, so it’s not just me making sure all is in order. I’ve asked each manager, “What does it mean to hold your budget and be responsible and accountable for your budget? How does what you’re doing within your budget feed into the bigger picture and what financial impact will your decisions have?”.

For example, if you’re asking me for more staff, where will the extra budget come from? How will you be able to secure that income? The module talks about “cash is king” and the importance of cash generation.  That’s really important for me as a local authority leader, because we have to look for additional income in so many different ways, we can’t just rely on the core grant funding. As well as being Principal of the Adult College, I’m also responsible for Employment and Skills in the Borough, so I’ve always got to look for where we can secure additional income to fund that service to meet Borough employment outcomes.


How do you think these resources could best be used?

I actually think these resources are not just relevant for CEOs and Principals, they are also relevant for up-and-coming leaders. Certainly, if I were a new Principal, this module on Financial Sustainability would be like gold dust to me. It’s almost like an introduction to becoming a CEO or Principal, it covers the key things that as a senior leader you should be mindful of, because if you can’t manage your finances, you’re failing your organisation and the sector. Financial sustainability is ultimately fundamental to delivering outcomes and keeping the organisation and sector buoyant.


What do you think is the ultimate value of these resources?

Getting this kind of support helps you to get the fundamentals right in terms of running and sustaining a business and specifically an education business, reliant on external funding. This really is a good introduction for CEOs and Principals and also a good reminder, even if you’ve been in the saddle for a while. You can get so submerged in the day-to-day challenges that sometimes getting some tips from other colleagues really helps to refocus you. For me, the value is the advice from other CEOs and Principals.

To access the ETF’s Development Resources for CEOs and Principals, visit: Foundation Online Learning

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