Meet Mr Enterprise

A top-flight civil servant who quit his job to run a failing college aims to turn it into the Bluewater of FE. Ian Nash reports

Where Kent's Bluewater boasts of being "the most innovative and exciting shopping and leisure centre in Europe", Mark Dawe expects to give Oaklands college the same status for "learning and leisure".

The Hertfordshire college of the future will cost pound;60 million to build. Over the next four years, he will invite other colleges and training organisations with a track record for excellence to do business at Oaklands - just as Bluewater opened its doors to the House of Fraser, John Lewis and Marks Spencer.

Mr Dawe sees this as the culmination of "collaboration and competition"

policies he helped create over four years as a senior civil servant at the Department for Education and Skills.

Colleagues were surprised when he quit as deputy director of strategy last year to become principal of a college struggling to recover from a damning inspection report in 2003. As a well-respected accountant and former director of finance for Canterbury College in Kent, he seemed destined for high office. As the son of Roger Dawe, the former DfES director general for lifelong learning, he knew the ropes of government, almost from childhood.

Mark Dawe quickly impressed his civil service bosses and ministers. He regards Oaklands as an opportunity to see if his theories work. "I was desperate then to find an institution that had a sound foundation that I could mould," he said.

Having previously had financial control of a building programme at Canterbury, he knew just what he wanted. The Oaklands initiative - a complete redesign of the 300-acre estate, funded partly by the sale of land for housing - is working in tandem with a huge retraining and curriculum reform programme.

"There is a big challenge to meet the Government agenda for 14 to 19, vocational training and adult skills," he said. "We need a flexible workforce that lasts. We should not be getting rid of people every time we need new skills."

He had an early run-in with the unions over proposed new contracts and performance-related pay when he insisted that the staffing structure was untenable.

"For example," he said, "we had 44 curriculum leaders teaching a total 500 hours a week. They had a multiplicity of roles without a clear management structure. We changed this and put the cash saved into frontline teaching."

He is spending pound;3 million a year improving facilities and reforming the curriculum - starting with catering, beauty and hairdressing and motor vehicle studies. He says the result will be more jobs, not fewer, as the college concentrates on its strengths and expands its range of courses.

It is this expansion that brings the "Bluewater" touch. He is already negotiating with Carter Carter, the UK's largest motor vehicle apprenticeship provider, to take space at Oaklands. More controversially, he is approaching other colleges to sell their educational wares in his marketplace.

"Take Capel Manor, down the road from us," he said. "It has world renown for horticulture. Is there a deal to be done that takes advantage of its expertise by allowing it to do business here? It's like purchasing software. You can either buy off-the-shelf from Microsoft, who have spent billions perfecting it, or you can spend millions reinventing it."

The trick is to get the balance of innovation and invitations right.

The college, with 17,000 students and annual budget of pound;25m, is also going into federation with the three other Hertfordshire colleges, again to rationalise and focus on individual strengths.

Mr Dawe says the federation is following US models that are very successful at meeting local needs. "Collectively, we will control pound;100m a year and have considerable clout." American community college federations are led by a single chancellor. Mr Dawe was not willing to say if that is a post he aspires to "but a federation will bring added strengths for more effective partnerships with schools, employers and the University of Hertfordshire".

A recent inspection report gave the college an overall "satisfactory"

grading. He said: "The staff and corporation have done really well to get there and we no longer have a mountain to climb to get 'excellent' - a rating I am determined to get next time."

His ideas may be visionary; they also put his credibility on the line. He has a clear view of what FE should be - a combination of core strengths and flexibility to compensate at short notice for absences or weaknesses in school, employer and higher educution provision. There is hardly a post-16 strategy he has not had a hand in shaping - including 14 to 19 policy, the Skills Strategy, Skills for Life, Skills for All, and the Foster Review of the future of FE.

His vision echoes Sir Andrew Foster's call for colleges to focus on specialist strengths without abandoning wider FE needs. The real test will be whether the wider issues, such as the huge range of "other" courses for adults currently being squeezed off the curriculum in so many colleges, survive.

"Not only can it survive, it will flourish. I am convinced of that," he said.

The college plans a considerable increase in "leisure and pleasure" courses for which it will charge full fees. "If you charge, you have to provide what people really want and it has to be high quality."

But, since courses will not use public funds, they will not be subject to the panoply of inspection and quality checks. This, he says will release cash which can be spent where there is clearly a need - in deprived areas and under-represented groups.

He said: "With the Leitch review showing a desperate need to improve the nation's skills, we have to get our priorities right. Some 20 to 30 per cent of what we spend is not hitting the priorities, so there is cash to shift to make sure people get what they need.

"Oaklands has had a difficult year but it has also faced up to the challenge to become an excellent college. Such changes are inevitably painful but by 2010 we will have created something unique."

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