Colleges asking for help before they run into trouble, says deputy FE commissioner

The impending arrival of the new insolvency regime is prompting some college leaders to request assistance before it’s too late, says official

Jonathan Owen

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Colleges wanting to avoid formal intervention from the FE commissioner are asking for informal "diagnostic assessment" visits and some are even requesting Structure and Prospects Appraisals, according to deputy FE commissioner Ioan Morgan.

Speaking at the Capita Further Education Conference at the Radisson Blu Hotel, East Midlands Airport, today, he stressed that the sector is in good shape: “Failing colleges are very much in the minority and the majority of colleges are 'good' or 'outstanding'."

In a keynote address to delegates at the conference, Mr Morgan explained how the role of the FE commissioner is “increasingly diagnostic and preventative”. He described diagnostic assessment visits as a form of “strategic involvement” and “informal consultancy”, which can “hopefully prevent colleges going into formal intervention”.

He was speaking in his first public appearance since taking up his post at the start of this year. Mr Morgan is one of several deputies who have been added to the FE commissioner’s team in recent months, “so that we can do more of this early intervention work”.

He said: “What’s interesting is that following on from the early pilots around diagnostic assessment, we are actually getting colleges now who are actually requesting and asking to enter into that [...] process themselves."

Mr Morgan added: “One of the things that’s driving colleges to change is the thought of the insolvency regime which is heading our way, and what we’ve got to do is try and make sure that we are busy enough to support enough colleges; that we don’t get any colleges entering into that regime if we can possibly help it."

FE institutions seeking help

Some colleges are coming forward to request the FE commissioner’s “help with Structure and Prospects Appraisals because they are thinking, ‘Don’t know. Looking around the corner, we’ve got the insolvency regime. Things are getting tougher – perhaps our dream of an increase in funding rates may not happen. We really now perhaps need a little bit of help in looking at potential partners.'"

He stressed that although the FE commissioner and his team will help, “the ultimate decision still rests with that governing body, as an independent corporation, of what it decides to do". "And I think it’s that transparency and clarity that attracts people who aren’t put off by the SPA process as much as they might have been at one time," Mr Morgan added.

The deputy FE commissioner reminded delegates that colleges needing support to improve can apply for funding from the strategic college improvement fund. The future success of the FE commissioner and his team should be measured by fewer colleges being placed under formal intervention and more rated "outstanding", he said.

Weak colleges are usually institutions where things have gone wrong at the top, he said. Good relationships between chairs and principals are “absolutely crucial” but when they are “too cosy or unproductive, they are dangerous”.

Mr Morgan warned colleges against the dangers of “vanity projects” which can become obsessions “often at the expense of quality, stakeholders and sometimes learners”. He also described the importance of middle management in whether colleges succeed or fail. While good managers can help colleges to survive, “you can have the best leaders in the world at tier one and tier two but if the middle tier’s wrong, that’s high risk”.

The best colleges make sure that, as well as having effective financial experts on their board, they have “objective curriculum expertise other than the principal and the senior team”. Colleges should have a “relentless focus on teaching and learning”, and Mr Morgan remarked: “It is seldom that you get a college that is in deep trouble when they are a values-driven college with really strong beliefs."

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Jonathan Owen

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