Two conversations came to mind when I read Ian Pryce’s latest piece in Tes about whether colleges should stay small. The two were with different ministers in my previous role in the funding agency, advising and supporting on college funding, quality and improvement.
The first conversation was around the question: “Can you analyse the performance data to show that big colleges are better?” The premise was that a big college benefits from economies of scale, can ride crises better, attracts stronger leadership and is able to specialise to meet needs. The analysis showed no correlation on any of the performance measures.
The second conversation was about the question: “Can you pull together some analysis to prove that small colleges are more effective?” This time, a few years after the first conversation, the premise was that smaller colleges were more in touch with their communities and therefore able to meet their needs better. Because of that connection, a smaller college was surely going to be more successful? Again, similar analysis, same answer.
Read more: Tes FE Awards 2019 winners crowned
Background: Tes FE Awards 2019 open for entries
'College size doesn't matter'
We could find no evidence at all that smaller or bigger was better. It seems that size really does not matter in our sector. Both ministers were sorely disappointed because both were adamant that their beliefs were correct – that’s politics for you, isn’t it? The conviction that one course of action or set of beliefs is inherently better than another.
What I tried to impart to both ministers was that there are probably two fundamental drivers for a successful college. The first is a bit of good fortune. Colleges with less competition from school sixth forms, other colleges and other providers tend to have a better chance of success. Likewise, those with less debt and better estates. Good fortune is often the result of good planning, strategy and implementation, of course, but for new leaders there is a big dose of chance.
With that good fortune goes the second and by far the most important factor – great leadership and governance. It is the key to all successful institutions and is easy to recognise, much harder to describe. It makes a mockery of any notion that there is a "best" size for a college, because great leaders will ensure that their institutions move towards and become the right size for the environment and circumstances they operate within. Because those circumstances change, so too might the size and configuration of a college – hence merger might be part of that but so too might demerger.
'Amazing talent, energy, application and impact'
Last week the Association of Colleges partnered with Tes to put on an awards evening for the Tes FE Awards and AoC Beacon Awards, which celebrated the amazing talent, energy, application and impact our sector has on the world we live in.
Over 700 people came together in a glitzy Park Lane hotel ballroom to recognise the best leaders, teachers, supporters, programmes, projects and institutions. We had an unapologetically fun evening. Unusually for our sector, we overcame the humility and modesty that epitomises the teaching profession and showed our pride about each other and about the millions of people every year who benefit from and are a part of our work.
If anyone was in any doubt about the basic good health of our sector, or about the passion and energy of our institutions and people, then the awards were a great antidote. That there is excellence across our sector is not in doubt, but we must constantly ask ourselves how we build the environment in which great leadership is fostered, supported and allowed to flourish. Aside from my (understandable) focus on the basic level of resources and the need for greater investment from government and employers, there are three issues which are worth highlighting.
Three big issues
- We can improve how we support staff to progress to higher levels of leadership and make sure that the pipeline of future leaders is working well. A good example of this is the cross-nations shadowing for tier-two leaders in colleges which we are piloting to encourage people to take that big step to the top level. This is led by the Four Nations College Alliance and supported by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), Scotland’s College Development Network and the Welsh government.
- We need to encourage more sharing, support and development of existing leaders. The ETF leadership programme in Oxford, the new ETF chairs programme and the training which AoC Create runs for aspiring leaders are all part of the suite of offers we need. That’s never going to be enough though, because leadership can be a lonely business. So we must encourage peer support, networks and sharing between leaders. The Department for Education’s strategic college improvement fund (SCIF) is another useful way in which our best leaders can help support others to improve and to address challenges.
- We need a culture of self-reflection and improvement in who we are and how we lead, as well as in how colleges are governed and regulated. This is the toughest part of the equation. Supporting succession and current leaders is critical, but the environment in which we ask them to operate must be conducive as well. The balance between accountability and support, the attitude to risk-taking, the way in which setbacks are dealt with and the language of success and failure all matter deeply to how the culture develops.
What we know is that the best leaders are confident, willing and able to ask for help and support. Institutional failure often follows from leaders unable to do that, for whatever reasons, early enough for the support to be effective. Rather than obsessing about size, I’d prefer that we spent more time and energy talking about how we develop this culture. As a sector based on education and development, it shouldn’t be too hard to learn the lessons of both success and failure in our sector and then apply them.
Wow, what a night. Thanks to everyone who shared a brilliant evening with us at the #TesFEawards. Special thanks to @AoC_info @E_T_Foundation @GordonMarsden @DaveGorman @AoCDavidH and all the lovely people I was able to meet. What a fantastic sector we have. pic.twitter.com/36FEJcRHVF— Stephen Exley (@stephenexley) March 23, 2019
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges