When Tesco was in its pomp, dominating the retail environment, its success was not down to the frontline people.
Its shelf-stackers and checkout staff were never going to be very different from those employed by Lidl or Sainsbury’s, even though they were courteous and friendly and did their jobs well.
It trounced the competition because it was streets ahead in its use of data – through its Clubcard – which it exploited to get the right products on the shelves more quickly, tailored to individual customer needs.
It was backed up by the most effective retail property team to the point where £1 in every £8 spent by consumers in Britain went into a Tesco till.
Marketing, research and financial management
This month, I celebrate 20 years as principal of Bedford College.
During those two decades, our five Ofsted inspections have concluded we are always "outstanding" or "good", our finances have been "outstanding" throughout, and we have grown year-on-year in 18 out of 20 of those years.
Tomorrow celebrate 20 years in best job you can imagine, Principal & Chief Executive of @bedfordcollege Thanks to everyone in our colleges & communities for putting up with me so long. Looking at the publicity pic can’t help thinking of that Cameron line “I was the future once” pic.twitter.com/KVFp9V8WGv— Ian Pryce CBE (@ipryce) November 30, 2018
When I try to pin down the reasons for that long-term consistency (since few truly general further education colleges have been so consistent), I have concluded the difference is down to our exceptional approach to marketing, research and an exceptional approach to financial management.
These are the things that have made our performance better in comparative terms.
'Teachers are fundamental'
Don’t misunderstand me. Teachers are fundamental to the success of every college.
It is vital that our frontline staff – teachers, tutors, receptionists, librarians – provide an excellent service.
National surveys confirm they do, with satisfaction scores that match those for the NHS.
My point is that it is very difficult for any college to reach a position where front-line staff are miles better than the same staff in neighbouring colleges. Let’s explore the reasons why I have reached that conclusion.
Premiership success = top flight salaries
It is probably true that our best legal and financial brains are concentrated in London.
Our best footballers are concentrated in Manchester, Liverpool and London – where institutional income is unequal, the richest can buy the best quality.
Premiership success is now almost perfectly correlated to a team’s salary bill. Education is very different.
If we are all funded equally we cannot pay far more than others for our teachers. This means there are many good and some great teachers in every part of the UK.
It's not all about frontline resource
That is not to say that good continuing professional development and quality processes cannot improve teachers ahead of your competitors, but everyone will be focused on that.
Even in a weak college, it is likely that perhaps 75 per cent of teaching and learning will be good or better, simply because teachers are professionals.
We need great teachers and have great teachers but because that is a common feature of FE – and we all employ large numbers of teachers – it is unlikely to be the reason why one college performs significantly better than another.
If you accept this argument it diminishes the faith we should have when people tell us to get as much resource to the frontline as possible.
'A major force for good'
Starving back-office functions like marketing and finance can be incredibly damaging educationally.
At my first staff meeting as principal in 1998, I promised our college would treble in size, treble the number of teachers, double the number of teaching support staff, and hold fixed the number of other staff.
I also promised we would make pay rises that maintained people’s standards of living regardless of funding rates.
I was convinced this was a model that would make the college financially sustainable, a major force for good, and help us secure and retain great people. We did exactly what was promised.
'Securing the best staff'
In setting out that plan though it meant securing the best marketing and finance staff, which comes at a cost premium.
You might expect me to say so but I believe I have the best marketing and finance teams in the sector.
It is no coincidence that our marketing director was the first ever “FE Marketing Professional of the Year” and our lead on research was named “FE Marketer of the Year” at the national awards last month.
Our finance director is shortlisted for “Leader of the Year” at the Tes FE Awards 2019.
Marketing at the heart of everything
Everyone in our college serves marketing. Curriculum areas must develop their curriculum in line with our market research.
High-quality research showed we could establish a specialist sixth form centre in Bedford if it was separately branded and sited. Within three years it was the second largest sixth form in the area.
Research told us exactly how to establish two new secondary free schools in a patch with poor results at the time but huge surplus capacity. Both are now over-subscribed and regarded as among the best in the area.
On the finance side, our “given” that we make pay awards means every year starts with calculating the productivity improvement we need to make to make those awards. Finance are expected to contribute ideas on how to earn more per teaching hour and secure more grants and more income.
'Course costing is a waste of time'
We tend to be able to predict overall numbers of 16 to 18, adult and apprenticeship students quite accurately and use that to control the total number of courses we approve.
We don’t do course costing, the most pointless waste of time ever invented, always an exercise in fantasy.
Life in colleges is tough now, perhaps tougher than ever before. Teaching staff are fundamental to delivering high-quality education and training.
It behoves us to make their task easier.
'All staff are valuable'
When I reflect on how much of our growth is down to correctly reading our local markets, researching how best to exploit that knowledge, chasing funding to support that, and furiously benchmarking our costs so we can employ more teachers, the importance of the back office functions is clear.
Let’s not let the government get away with sloppy rhetoric about the front line.
All college staff are important and valuable, and back office staff can often make a huge difference to the student experience.
Ian Pryce is the principal and chief executive of Bedford College