Meet the serial fixers parachuted into failing colleges

Revealed: The consultants and interim leaders who keep cropping up at colleges in FE commissioner intervention

Julia Belgutay

Who are the serial fixers in the further education sector

When colleges get into difficulties, it has become commonplace that a change of leadership is one of the most likely outcomes for the institution.

Tes analysis shows that of the 13 colleges subject to an FE commissioner intervention report published in 2019, only three did not see a change in senior management.

The tendency to remove seemingly failing leaders has led to the rise of a new breed of college leader – the serial interim principal. Often retired from a long career in FE, these principals are contracted in to steady an organisation before a more permanent new leadership is put in place, a college is merged with a stronger neighbour, or, as in the case of Hadlow College, the administrators take over.

Read more: College interim leader earned £143,000 for seven months' work

Exclusive: Interim principal replaces Dame Asha Khemka

Also of interest: Eight college leaders quit in eight weeks

Interim leadership

In a number of cases, Tes understands, these leaders were approached at the recommendation of FE commissioner Richard Atkins' office.

And it can be a lucrative business. In February last year, Tes revealed that an interim principal who ran a college for a period of seven months earned £143,000 for that work – over £20,000 per month. At Hadlow College, the first FE institution to enter administration last year, the first six months since the administrators were appointed saw £146,265.86 spent on consultants, according to joint administrators’ summary of receipts and payments.

So who are these serial fixers of the FE sector? Analysis of responses to a freedom of information request by Tes on the use of consultants shows the same businesses appearing over and over again.

Two of these are specialist consultancies FE Associates and the Further Education Partnership, both of which crop up repeatedly in the administration paperwork and FOI responses for Hadlow Colleges Group – and both of which had their bills footed by the FE commissioner.

Also hired by the group was ADF Accounts, a small business which as its sole director lists Anna Fitch, the finance expert who became an adviser to the FE commissioner last year and was sent by him into Hadlow College group as financial officer – paid for, again, by the commissioner’s office. However, the "notice of affairs in administration" for Hadlow, published earlier this month, revealed that the firm was owed £3,974. Also owed money were the Further Education Partnership Ltd (£2,465) and FE Associates (£62,033), although the latter says that the figure is no longer accurate.

A spokesperson for the business says the company was established in 2004 to support the leadership and recruitment needs of the further education and skills sector. It is run by Matt Atkinson, who has been managing director since 2016, and who prior to joining held the role of principal and chief executive at Bath College. The company offers interim leadership and management solutions, as well as permanent senior recruitment, project consultancy and quality improvement support.

'Experts in their fields'

When it comes to interim leadership, it provides services to support with short-term leadership gaps, additional capacity to drive a particular agenda, for example quality improvement, and specialist expertise where a college may find itself in challenging circumstances, particularly in finance and MIS.

“Our interim leaders and managers work at all levels from principal/chief executive through to heads of department," the spokesperson says. "All of the people we use are experts in their fields and have the ability to diagnose issues quickly and provide practical solutions without requiring a steep period of learning.

“The time an interim leader spends in an organisation will vary according to the particular situation. For example, in the case of a college merging with another, an interim leader may support the college up until the point of merger or in other situations the interim may support the college with the appointment of an individual to take up the role permanently.”

When it comes to the most high-profile appointments in FE – that of interim chairs and principals – the sector has seen a number of individuals moving from post to post or being repeatedly called out of retirement due to their previous record.

Martin Sim, recently appointed as interim principal and chief executive at Vision West Nottinghamshire College, is a former principal of Salford City College who, since leaving that college in 2015, has served in an interim capacity at Gateway Sixth-Form College (at the time in special measures) and Barnfield College, which was in financial difficulty.

Penny Wycherley, currently principal of Highbury College, became a principal in 2006, but has held interim posts since 2011, when she became interim principal at Great Yarmouth College – a post she held for three and a half years. In that time, the college moved from an "inadequate" Ofsted grade to "good”. Following that, she was interim principal at Waltham Forest College and then City College Plymouth.

Meanwhile Elaine McMahon recently left her most recent interim post at Cornwall College, where she took over in November 2018. Her post there followed stints at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, Edinburgh College, City College Coventry and Kensington and Chelsea College.

The approach of drafting in interims is not without controversy. One sector leader tells Tes: “I don’t think the model is the right model. I don’t believe all the leaders who had their heads cut off were necessarily the wrong people for that job. What is surprising is how few leaders get supported to get out of trouble.”

'We hope to make a difference'

He adds: “The solution is merger or leadership change. That lends itself to a system where people loathe to say they are in trouble.”

The interim principals and chairs, the source says, were not to blame in this: “A lot of those people actually do a really good job. They are experienced and calm and are brought in when the shit hits the fan. It is just happening too much, and it is happening at the expense of leadership development more generally. We need a system change in which you need more collaboration, more support.”

Former Association of Colleges chief executive and UCL professor Martin Doel is currently interim chair at Highbury College, following a stint at West Kent and Ashford College as the institution became the second to face education administration as a part of the Hadlow College Group. On both occasions, he was approached following a recommendation from the FE commissioner’s team.

“I love the sector and remain committed to helping colleges give their best," he says. "We do it because we hope to make a difference. The interim chair roles are remunerated, but at a much lower rate than the consultancy rate that those involved could usually command. Is the money the motivator? No. But some sort of payment is, I think, right given the commitment and level of risk involved reputationally and as a company director.

“For me, intellectual curiosity was also a factor – seeing from the inside how the new insolvency provisions might work in practice. But what has struck me at both West Kent and Ashford and now at Highbury, even in such challenging circumstances, is the excellent work that staff are doing for their students. That has been really heartening.

“If you go in as an interim chair of a college in those circumstances, I think there is a need for a combination of general leadership experience – which a lot of people would probably have – and an understanding of FE policy, quality and governance. It is contextualised leadership that I think is needed if you are going to get off to a rapid start, most probably with an interim principal, in establishing a baseline understanding of the key issues.

"From there the next step is probably to help stabilise the situation, give a sense of forward momentum, and then to move on. I’m a firm believer that the permanent chair for a college should be a local ambassador. At Highbury, for example, as soon as the way ahead is clear, I would be keen to hand over to a locally-recruited chair for the next stage of the journey.

“We have got to give the next generation of leaders the opportunity to develop. This development needs to be more systematic and broader-based, particularly for new principals. But even the strongest leaders could have difficulties if the colleges continue to be starved of resources.”

Ms Wycherley says it is the desire to make a difference that attracts her to interim roles. “I came into further education, as have so many others, with a passion for supporting individuals to achieve their potential. At first sight my career path may seem erratic as I moved through HR, business, teaching, inspection, back to management, consultancy and then management again. I hope it has given me an insight into leadership and the twin challenges of focusing on learning and money simultaneously.”

She continues: “For any organisation the key skill is always firstly to communicate. There are so many reasons for doing this and books have been written about it. The communication has to be clear, honest and fast. It has to come from the top and be accessible. It has to be face to face, in writing, in our behaviours and it has to take into account that what is happening changes people lives and they will be anxious. It has to be two-way, not just telling.”

Ms Wycherley explains that the way she has ended up in her interim roles has varied. “I have never ‘cold called’ a college. I work through the Association of Colleges and, in the past through the QIA or when I was working in the sector as a consultant, through the network of those who knew about work I had done. The commissioner has an oversight now of all those who go in as principals or CEOs in troubled colleges and his view is valued.

“I would rather the role [of interim principal] isn’t needed. The financial pressures together with the rapid and sometimes unworkable changes in government policy and funding rules have made the leadership of colleges particularly challenging. Clarity and consistency are vital so planning is not overwhelmed by reactive pressures rather than implementing sustained, coherent plans which would benefit individuals, communities and the economy.”

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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