The FE sector has made progress in the last year, according to FE commissioner Richard Atkins, but area reviews and tight finances continue to pose challenges.
In his annual report, Mr Atkins said that while there were fewer Ofsted inadequate colleges, there were "too many" that were rated requires improvement, with some remaining at that level for “substantial periods”. This, he stressed, would create challenges going forward.
“We need to bring greater capacity, resources, and focus to accelerate improvement,” said the FE commissioner.
He added there remained a number of colleges that needed to improve their financial health, including some that remained standalone following the area reviews. “It is vital that colleges carefully review forward financial plans – including testing income assumptions.”
His office’s new extended remit would address these challenges, said Mr Atkins. “This will involve earlier engagement with colleges that need to improve quality, or have significant risks to financial health. I will also be supported by an FE Principals Reference Group. This will both enable me to more effectively consult and engage with current leaders on improvement, and will feed practitioner insight into policy design – critical at a time of major reform.”
He added the creation of National Leaders of Further Education and the new Strategic College Improvement Fund would accelerate improvement and mean he would “be working in partnership with some of the best current college leaders”.
According to the annual report, which examines the year from 1 September 2016 to 31 August 2017, 14 colleges and other relevant providers were assessed by Ofsted as "inadequate" in their last inspection as of 31 August 2016. Thirteen of these colleges were assessed by the FE commissioner’s team, which made recommendations for improvement and then regularly monitored progress.
As of 31 August 2017, 13 of these relevant providers were no longer "inadequate" and one was in the process of merging with a stronger partner. “Of the 13 colleges no longer in Ofsted inadequate status, five have improved to "requires improvement", three to good and five have merged with a stronger partner,” the report said.
Leadership and governance
Mr Atkins explained the areas of leadership and governance which created success in the further education sector “remain consistent”. “It is essential to have a costed curriculum plan, setting out the margin by course. Boards must have the right balance of expertise. There should be multiple channels of information to the board, with clear RAG rated performance measures: board members should engage with the next tier of management on curriculum and finance.
“Over-optimistic forecasting and a failure of governors to challenge leadership teams are a consistent trend in colleges that enter financial difficulty. Every college needs to sustain a relentless focus on teaching, learning and assessment.”