The financial failure of colleges is rarely the result of recklessness, but more commonly down to their leaders wanting to be ambitious without adequate scrutiny from governors, according to the skills minister.
Speaking to Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes in a video question-and-answer session, Anne Milton said her comments at the AoC annual conference last month – reportedly decrying “well-meaning principals and governors” in charge of failing organisations – had been taken out of context, and said “most principals, most governing bodies are absolutely fantastic and do a brilliant job”.
She added: “But it is true in all of the public sector, as it is true in the private sector, that the boards play a really important role [in holding bosses to account].”
'Desire to be ambitious'
The skills minister made reference to a college she had been aware of that, despite “well-meaning” leadership, had not been performing well. She said: “There is some excellent leadership [in the FE sector], but nobody can deny that it isn’t excellent everywhere. I want every college to be excellent. People say this is a ridiculous ambition – no, it is not. We can work with colleges.
“When colleges don’t do well and run into financial problems, it is almost never down to being reckless. It is often down to a real desire to be ambitious for the college, but without adequate financial scrutiny and adequate opportunity to make a good risk assessment. My message is principals do a brilliant job, governing bodies do a brilliant job, but we need everyone to do a brilliant job all the time in difficult circumstances.”
Miss Milton also said that she had received “probably well over 100” letters regarding college funding, and congratulated Mr Hughes on the #LoveOurColleges campaign. But she added that she could not promise that extra funding for FE would be forthcoming in next year's Spending Review: “I haven’t said there is more money because it is just not in my gift. My job is to make the case for FE.”
She said she would like her legacy as a minister to be that the profile of FE had been raised “to such a level that the chancellor cannot resist the pleas for more funding”.
Speaking about the apprenticeship levy, Miss Milton said the tax had forced businesses to address their own workforce and to undertake workforce planning. Once the system was running well, however, she said it was important to assess whether “we continue to fund apprenticeships for people already in work, people doing second degrees”.
“To me, the apprenticeship system should be about that second, third, fourth chance," she said. "It also has to be about progression. We want to increase aspiration. We are looking at it all at the moment.”
The new T-level qualifications were “a centrepiece of government policy”, and it was important that these were funded “properly”, she continued. Industry placements – one of the major areas of concern for the sector – had felt “quite challenging for some colleges”, but much could be learned from pilot schemes: “This isn’t something a college or a sixth-form college can do on the side. You can’t tag industry placements onto a teacher’s job who is doing something else. There has to be a team managing that relationship with local employers. It needs to be very flexible and colleges need to be properly resourced to do that. The colleges that are doing well are often those that have really good links with their employers.”
Ms Milton said it was crucial to have “a very clear mission for FE” and congratulated the AoC on plans to set up a commission on this issue in January. “What is its purpose? Now is the time we need to be able to articulate that. I am thrilled you are doing that. To counteract intellectual snobbery, you need to have that vision. And from that vision, everything else should flow.”