Atkins: FE commissioner's role 'distinctly different'

FE commissioner Richard Atkins has insisted that his role is distinct from Ofsted and the ESFA - and hit out at 'unfair' FE funding

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The FE commissioner's expanded remit to drive college improvement does not overlap with other bodies overseeing the sector, Richard Atkins has insisted.

Addressing the House of Commons education committee today, the commisioner was quizzed by chair Robert Halfon about whether the "spaghetti" of organisations involved with further education colleges resulted in a case of “too many cooks”.

While acknowledging the need for "greater coherence and explanation" around the duties of Ofsted, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), Mr Atkins said the frontline experience of his team brought a different perspective.

"We’re the only people who bring the focus to governance, leadership and the overall financial sustainability of colleges," he said, "and it’s our experience as former principals, as none of the other organisations have former principals."

'Greater coherence' needed

Mr Atkins explained that the colleges improvement board within the Department for Education brings the different bodies together. He added: "So I think there’s room for greater coherence and explanation, but actually I think our roles are distinctly different. I think Ofsted inspect against a statutory framework – they come in, inspect and go away. I think that the ESFA they fund colleges and monitors their financial performance. the ETF is a non-government organisation at arm’s length that gets some grant funding."

Mr Atkins also acknowledged the funding pressures colleges face and the "unfair" split between FE and HE.

“If you asked me about the distribution in the UK between the funding that is given to further education and higher education, I would say that was unfair,” he told the committee.

“I say that as the principal of a college that offers both FE and HE, and as a university governor. So I would say the distribution that we’ve chosen as a nation over the last 30, 40, 50 years between FE and HE isn’t fair.” 

Role models important

BBC Breakfast business presenter Steph McGovern drew praise from the FE commissioner after a question from MP Trudy Harrison about encouraging women in subjects like engineering.

Mr Atkins said: "A lot of those attitudes appear to be set at a very young age. There's a lot more to be done, some needs to be done in the home as well as in the school and it needs to be done through role models. One of the champions of FE Steph McGovern on BBC Breakfast who does lots for our sector is a fantastic role model and we need more and we need more role models like her."

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