The FE commissioner’s new guiding role: hatchet man or helping hand?

Expert advice to become available as part of an expanded ‘self-improving system’

Stephen Exley

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A radical expansion of FE commissioner Richard Atkins' role to include support and guidance for struggling colleges is currently being drawn up, Tes can reveal.

At present, Mr Atkins and his team of deputies are drafted in to intervene in cases when a college fails an Ofsted inspection, or is found to be financially inadequate. But now, changes are on the way that would also make the FE commissioner the first port of call for institutions in need of advice and support.

In July, education secretary Justine Greening announced plans for a £15 million college improvement fund – and that the commissioner’s role was to be extended to take in sixth-form colleges. Now, it has emerged that this is part of a more substantial expansion of the commissioner’s remit.

While the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) will continue to be responsible for intervening when colleges are in serious financial difficulty, the FE commissioner is expected to be asked take the lead on interventions around the quality of provision.

There will also be a second level of involvement, which will include offering additional assistance to colleges at deemed to be at risk of seeing their performance deteriorate, with a view to addressing problems before they become entrenched. All colleges rated as “requires improvement” by Ofsted are expected to come within the scope of the programme.

'Helping people who need help in difficult times'

Under the scheme, expert guidance will be made available from a cadre of “National Leaders of Further Education”. Between 30 and 40 principals and chief executives of successful colleges are expected to be recruited, Tes understands. In her speech to the British Chambers of Commerce during the summer, Greening outlined that these leaders will be “empowered to spread their expert knowledge, as well as mentor and support weaker parts of the system”.

College leaders were due to meet Department for Education officials this week to discuss how the new system of support and intervention might operate, and how to make best use of the allocated £15 million budget over two years.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “This is an important move and I think we should all try to make it work. It’s about helping people who need help in difficult times.

“A key element is that it would be voluntary for colleges to come and ask for help. It’s a positive move, but I think it’s going to be difficult to make happen.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 1 September edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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