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If it's broke, we can fix it

Should Scotland's further education colleges succeed in turning around their fortunes, it will be due in no small measure to the efforts of John Burt.

The 52-year-old principal of Angus College has completed his first seconded year heading the development directorate - the FEDD, as he fondly calls it - in the Scottish Further Education Funding Council.

Mr Burt's appointment raised some eyebrows since his remit was portrayed as sending in hit squads to tell fellow principals why they were failing at their job and how they could do it better. One yardstick of his success to date may be that he appears to have overcome these suspicions, although he suggests this is also because the relationship between the colleges and the funding council is now "more mature".

"I prefer to think of our work in terms of 'hint squad', not 'hit squad'," he says. "This is about college management development rather than fixing management failure."

His team consists of 38 secondees skilled in a variety of areas such as change management, marketing and curriculum change. It includes specialist FE staff but also college board members and recently retired principals.

The FEDD has gone into seven colleges and at present is still supporting five. "They are all voluntary and all in different circumstances," Mr Burt says.

The range of these circumstances points to the need for colleges to be able to call on outside support. Assistance is clearly required with financial recovery plans, not just drawing them up but delivering them. Mr Burt, however, says that improvements are also necessary in strategic planning, in encouraging senior managements to widen their thinking to look at best practice elsewhere and in "skills matching" where colleges can land in trouble if, say, two finance officers leave.

"I see ourselves as acting a bit like a marriage broker between the colleges and the funding council," Mr Burt comments. "It's a facilitation role and it is not just about financial problems."

While Mr Burt is clear that he is supporting colleges rather than intervening directly, it is a fine line. The funding council calls in colleges to a case conference if they are in difficulty, as part of its wider monitoring role. Mr Burt attends these meetings and a decision would then be taken whether to "offer" FEDD support.

"It's never imposed," he says. "It is important that the development directorate is seen as quasi-independent, even although we are based in the funding council."

Brian Curle, a retired businessman who is a board member at Glasgow College of Food Technology, is on the FEDD team. Mr Curle says: "We must not be seen as agents of the funding council, which might provoke resistance. I faced the same problem in industry where there is also a fine line between assisting and interfering."

Mr Burt believes the credibility of the exercise will be established when his team can show it is adding value to the work of colleges. According to an evaluation of the first year by the independent consultancy Frontline, there is evidence of "significant improvement" although its report says "it is too early to establish whether long-term sustainable change has been made in strategic management capacities".

The FEDD has tapped into a willingness to offer informal support to colleges from within the FE sector and its approach of "formalising the informal" has delivered benefits that would not otherwise have been achieved, the consultants state.

Their report also points out that Mr Burt's secondees are having a valuable hands-on experience - "training with live ammunition", as it memorably puts it - which could lead to them becoming future college leaders and managers.

And the colleges themselves are receiving a free service.

As Mr Burt acknowledges, there is no obligation on colleges to take his services even if some may regard the funding council's "offer" as hard to refuse. There are some areas where he may have nothing to offer: there is no one in FE who has seen a merger through from beginning to end, for example, so it would make more sense in such a case for colleges to call in experts from higher education or consultants.

While the FEDD was largely born out of crisis, Mr Burt does not see its contribution remaining in that light. There may be an emerging problem or an opportunity a college cannot fully develop which might lead it to turn to the team. "I look forward quite soon to writing to myself to request assistance," he remarked.

At present, the funding council is content that its development directorate should simply be "a key option for supporting colleges". The notion that it might become an agent for change was rejected on the grounds that this "would carry connotations of intervention, forced involvement and top-down approaches".

Marriages of convenience

The good . . .

* "Made us think differently."

* "It was of great value."

* "Refreshingly unbureaucratic."

* "I had my own ideas but needed someone to bounce them off and get some reassurance."

and the bad . . .

* "Seems to be underpinned by assumption of poor management."

* "Need to be in consulting mode rather than auditing mode."

* "We felt done to rather than worked with."

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