Critical rebirth of confidence

After years of criticism, the Further Education Development Agency is focusing on a secure future, reports Jon Slater.

IT IS a sign of growing confidence at the Further Education Development Agency that Chris Woodhead's new role in college inspection has left feathers unruffled.

Despite the chief inspector of schools' very public attacks on education research, chief executive, Chris Hughes said: "It is not a worry for us. We simply have to take OFSTED or whoever else inspects the sector in our stride."

This is a far cry from a year ago. Morale was at rock bottom after a critical report from MPs, who attacked the agency for "lacking a clear strategic vision" and questioned whether it provided value for money. Stephen Crowne, then chief executive, left shortly afterward to be replaced by Mr Hughes, who was an adviser to that inquiry.

"FEDA had lost confidence. It had got locked into just doing things for people," said Mr Hughes. Much of his first year in office has been spent trying to change that and: "To make the agency see itself as a big player."

FEDA was set up in 1994 with the merger of the Further Education Unit and the Staff Training College. It was planned as a not-for-profit company to provide leadership, research, staff development and policy direction. But its early life was dogged by accusations of a lack of focus, restructuring and a high staff turnover.

The volume of criticism crescendoed with the verdict of MPs on the education select committee, and forced the agency to start again. Under Chris Hughes it has re-invented itself with a focus on improving FE for learners. It is a goal he pursued as principal of Gateshead College, where the Learning Zone in the Metro Centre shopping complex (delivered with Sunderland University) took learning closer to the public.

Before taking over at FEDA, Mr Hughes had experience at Gateshead and Peterleigh (now New College Durham) as well as working with the Association of Colleges to raise the profile of further education.

After 27 years in colleges, including 12 as principal, he is well aware of the need for FEDA to justify its existence - and the pound;2 million public contribution to its running costs. When he took over, the agency was running at a "significant" deficit. It is now operating with a modest surplus and turnover has increased to pound;15m a year.

Key to the turnaround have been two major contracts worth about pound;7m a year. One of them is a three-year project in which FEDA works with principals and college managers to raise quality and achievement. The agency has also won a government contract to promote and support key skills for the post-16 group.

The Government's recent blueprint for FE, Learning to Succeed, has generated excitement at the agency. "The White Paper is a great platform for a development agency." said Mr Hughes.

An important area for the immediate future is professional development. As well as developing the Government's qualification for principals, FEDA is moving the agenda forward to develop a PhD for college heads.

The agency's change has been welcomed in the sector. "He has pulled it round astonishingly quickly and taken some tough and courageous decisions," said Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College.

However, FEDA's renaissance is not complete and Mr Hughes acknowledges there is still some way to go. "I am most proud of the fact that people at FEDA are now glad to be here and know they are important. There is a long way to go but we're now pointing in the right direction."

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