College merger: 'An organisation afraid to innovate will stagnate'

Change requires hard work and commitment – but it is necessary for a college to succeed, writes Sam Parrett

Sam Parrett

London South East Colleges made bold changes and is now seeing the benefits

It was with great delight last week that we received a good rating from Ofsted, following the highly anticipated visit from inspectors in the spring term.

The significance of this report was the fact that London South East Colleges only came into existence in August 2016. Its creation followed the three-way college merger of Bromley College with Bexley College and Greenwich Community College.

Background: London colleges announce mergers and alliances ahead of area reviews

More news: Chartered Institution for FE welcomes 14th member

Read more: Four secrets to a successful college merger

A mammoth task

With a grade 4 rating, the ongoing financial and quality issues at Greenwich Community College had led the FE commissioner to conduct a structure and prospects appraisal. This ultimately resulted in our (Bromley College’s) agreement to take on the failing college in Greenwich, together with neighbouring Bexley College, in a pioneering merger.

The merger was clearly a mammoth task and the stakes were high. Bromley College was a good college in a sound financial position. Yet, could it withstand the pressure of taking on a failing college with a £5 million deficit? Could we successfully align the different cultures at each of the colleges, while maintaining local and community identity? Would staff accept the change and support the ambition?

We didn’t have answers to these questions, but what we did know was that if we didn’t make the bold decision to go ahead, Greenwich may well have lost its further education provision. This would have been a devastating blow for the area, preventing many people from returning to education and developing new skills, and thus a blow to social mobility in an area that very much needed investment.

'Extremely hard work'

So, with the full support of the local authority, we took the risk and put in three years of extremely hard work. I knew that one of the most important things to get right was striking the appropriate balance between finance and quality. I drew on my own career experience of running public services in a businesslike way and this approach continues to underpin our whole ethos.

As a result, Greenwich now has a good college for the first time in its history. In its report, Ofsted reflected on the fact that we are putting students at the heart of everything we do, right across the college. We prioritise our students’ interests in all our decision-making, and will continue to do so.

Our successful approach has also been recognised by the Mayor of London, who has recently granted us £10m from his Skills for Londoners budget to redevelop the Greenwich campus – further improving and safeguarding FE in the area.

We have also attracted further investment across the college group – with all our campuses benefiting in terms of both facilities and provision. This includes the development of a new aerospace and technology college at London Biggin Hill Airport.

Progress and development

This rapid progress and development has seen our organisation transform from three local colleges into the leading education provider operating throughout south-east London, offering a greater range of courses and qualifications to people of all ages and at all levels.

We have learnt many lessons from our experience over the past three years, but for me, it has demonstrated the value of calculated risk-taking, brave leadership and investment in our most important resource: our staff.

Alan Clarke’s definition of a "learning organisation’" very much reflects the philosophy we have introduced across London South East Colleges: our shared beliefs and goals; effective team and cross-organisational working; encouragement of calculated risk-taking; the delegation of responsibility/authority; and the expectation that everyone performs to their maximum ability.

Strengthening morale and ambition

This way of working is now at the heart of what we do, strengthening our organisation’s morale, provision and ambition.

Exploiting opportunities, diversifying an offer and maximising assets can require tough – and sometimes quite unpopular – decision-making. Yet, keeping the status quo and being afraid to innovate will stagnate an organisation, with the risk of it becoming unfit for purpose, as the world changes around it. Innovation is undoubtedly needed in all industries, but simply cannot occur without a level of risk. As TS Eliot said: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”

Our organisation’s ability to be flexible and adapt to the changing financial and political environment has been an important part of our journey so far, but we cannot rest on our laurels. We will continue to make brave, collective decisions and develop our aim to become a true social enterprise – ensuring we are truly embedded in our communities and continue to support people to go as far as they can possibly go.

Sam Parrett OBE is principal and chief executive of London South East Colleges


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