Earlier this month, Newcastle and Stafford Colleges Group became the first college to be judged “outstanding” by Ofsted following the introduction of its new framework.
A great achievement in itself, it is even more of a feat considering that when Newcastle College and Stafford College merged only three years ago, Stafford was struggling and had an Ofsted grade 4 against its name.
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Karen Dobson, principal and chief executive, had been principal of Newcastle-under-Lyme College since 2004, and this was the first merger she had taken on. “At that time, we were ‘good’ with some ‘outstanding’ features, while Stafford was a grade 4.”
The turnaround to an outstanding institution has been quick and the changes dramatic. Staff at the Stafford site had had to endure a “huge amount of change”, Dobson explains. “When you have a college that has been in difficulty for quite some time, lots of things need to be looked at. The good thing was that there were very many good teaching staff at Stafford.”
Support services, she says, were “outdated” at the time of the merger. “We had to realign some of the support functions to make sure they serve the teaching staff and the students.”
Stafford had no senior management in place on the day of the merger, and the biggest challenge, she says, were the surprises the college had in store: “While we did financial due diligence, there were lots of other things we didn’t know until we were there. You are being presented with paper memos and think ‘Ok, they are using paper memos here’.”
So what steps were taken in the three years to the merger to get to the college to a stage where, according to Ofsted, learners, “enjoy their time at college very much” and they “rate highly the excellent facilities and the experienced and welcoming staff”?
Dobson says at the time of the merger, support services were outdated, and there had been a lack of resource investment. “They had a very old-fashioned way of doing things,” she explains. “We knew what we needed to do. We had to invest in the IT systems – for example, there was only one phone line into Stafford College. Luckily, Newcastle had been financially outstanding for 15 years of so, so we had the financial resources. There has been significant investment, including a significant refurbishment.”
Establish a core mission
According to the principal, Stafford was “missing that core mission at the centre”. “I think they had forgotten what it was like to be a student there. So we were clear we wanted going to Stafford College to be a fantastic experience.”
Consider the curriculum
“The new Ofsted framework has that focus on students, knowledge and skills and what teachers are doing to improve memory recall and knowledge to help students progress,” says the principal. “I think that has been helpful to us. We had a real look at our curriculum to make sure it is right. In lots of ways the courses colleges offer are the courses colleges offer – but what we had to do was look at what they did and didn’t do.
While Newcastle offered A levels as well as vocational courses, Stafford had dropped A levels. “I feel a tertiary model is a really strong model because it describes an institution where there is provision for every post-16 learner. We re-introduced A levels at Stafford, and that is in its third year now. That is the area where we have the most staff teaching at both sites so we have that consistency. We introduced some other curriculum areas to make sure young people continue to engage in education. That was all done in the first year.”
Focus on pedagogy
“We did lots of work with our curriculum people on getting them to think about why they were doing what they were doing and thinking about their pedagogy,” says Dobson. “In some areas, that is a very straightforward thing to do – but in some vocational areas, we have a lot of people who had other careers so who don’t always have that pedagogy background. We have worked on that and that has really hit off.”
Review quality improvement processes
The newly merged college took on Newcastle’s approach to quality improvement for the first couple of years, explains Karen Dobson, but that has now evolved into a new approach. Rather than focusing on observations, peers and management now talk to students and staff about their experience – something that is also an important part of an Ofsted inspection. “What that did by the time Ofsted came in was that they had done that so many times it was quite straightforward.”
We made it very clear to staff why we were doing something, rather than doing something else. So while in the first year there was lots of upheaval, staff got on board with that,” says Ms Dobson.
The second year following the merger, says Dobson, was all about “ambition and providing excellence”. “When you have had a disappointing Ofsted, people’s aspirations can be quite low. We wanted to be an outstanding college. You can be ambitious but not put your money where your mouth is – you have to support staff and make sure teachers have got lots of information at their fingertips to monitor performance and make it easier.”
The revelation that the college had been judged outstanding led to an emotional reaction by many staff, says Dobson: “Everyone was really pleased at Newcastle, but there were quite a lot of tears at Stafford, because they were quite used to bad results.” There are no plans for the college to rest on its laurels, Dobson stresses. “You can’t believe your own hype. [The Ofsted judgement] is clearly fantastic – I am really pleased and I am pleased for the area – but that is one thing. What is next?”