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No worries on the Wirral

James Sturcke talks to principal Ray Dowd about how he turned round a failing college with quality control and communication

A sea of St George flags flutter in the unusually warm breeze blowing off the River Mersey. The bunting is out in the streets of central Birkenhead in a newfound display of footballing hope and passion.

On the campus of Wirral Metropolitan college there's also a fresh pride. In 1999, the college was hugely in debt and received a terrible inspection report.

The principal, Jenny Shackleton, was eased out and the entire board of governors, faced with the threat of legal action by the then education secretary David Blunkett, resigned.

Three years later Wirral Metropolitan was back into the top 40 per cent of colleges courtesy of Ray Dowd, the new principal and the new board of governors.

Now the college, which has 17,000 students and an annual turnover of pound;23 million, is solvent once again and is applying for two Centre of Vocational Excellence (Cove) awards in health and social care, and construction. Mr Dowd, who was appointed in April 1999, has set himself the target of attaining Beacon status by 2007.

"I do not think we are there yet," he says, "but a lot of the staff now feel very proud to be associated with the college. A lot of them will want their children to come here and that is a good starting point.

He wants people to know that if they go to his college they are likely to get their qualification and go on to be successful in their career. "Our credibility will come from our students' successes."

Giving student satisfaction and attainment top priority has been the cornerstone of Mr Dowd's college recovery plan and something born of his own experience growing up in Manchester. The 52-year-old principal did badly at school and left at 15 to serve a six-year painting and decorating apprenticeship. That led to him gaining part-time teaching experience at Stockport college.

"At school the attitude of staff was that we were only fit to work in factories," he says. "At college I felt I was recognised for the first time and I began to get positive feedback, awards and distinctions. In part that is the passion I have for FE. I believe everybody has the ability to succeed at something and FE gives them that opportunity."

After finishing teacher training in Huddersfield, Dowd got his first FE job in 1977 at Lewisham college, south-east London, where he spent two days a week planning curriculum development and began writing training packs.

In 1979 he went to Blackpool amp; The Fylde college teaching life and social skills, often in community and church halls. Two years later he became vocational preparation co-ordinator for the Government's New Training Initiative, building ties with such local companies as British Nuclear Fuels and ICI to give youngsters work experience.

He went to Rumney college (now Coleg Glan Hafren) in Cardiff in 1983 where he set up a private company in the college to provide work-based learning.

By the time he left in 1990, the firm's turnover had risen from pound;80,000 in 1983 to pound;1.2m, including a pound;200,000 surplus covenanted back to the college.

Hundreds of firms were involved in work-based learning, he says. That business experience was vital when he joined Sandwell college in the West Midlands as vice-principal and managed the transition to incorporation (when colleges were taken out of local authority control).

Mr Dowd gained his first principal appointment in 1994 at Hopwood Hall college, Rochdale, where poor inspector grades had led to the dismissal of its head. During his four years there, the college became the first in the country to go from a grade 4 in quality to grade 1, while the management and governance improved to 2s.

On the back of that success, he was approached in early 1999 by the new governors of Wirral Metropolitan college. The college had pound;13.9m debts and had repeatedly failed to deliver its recovery plans. Some doubted its future, but Mr Dowd saw the two-year fixed contract offered as a challenge.

"When failing colleges hit the media it does enormous damage ," he says.

"Our sector is so important to the lives of so many people that for it to get a bad reputation because of a minority of institutions is unacceptable.

We as principals have a duty to limit the damage caused by one or two failing colleges.

"My recovery plan aims were to get it right for the students and to make sure quality was improved. We had been haemorrhaging students because they were not getting a good service.

"To do that I had to develop the staff. If they do not have the right skills and experience for quality learning then student experience is not going to be good.

"Another objective was to make sure I knew I was getting it right which meant looking at the quality assurance. We got an outside firm in and that meant we could benchmark with what other colleges were doing."

Then there was the accommodation. The college had more than twice the space it needed, so it was wasting pound;1m each year running empty buildings.

Much of it was in a desperate state - the windows often hadn't been cleaned for 10 years.

"Finally, there was the financial recovery. I put that last because, if you have satisfied students and they keep coming back, then your income comes in.

"I hope I'm not being unfair but most of the other candidates for the job started off by saying they would financially recover the college and didn't focus on students."

His plan was praised by the then Further Education Funding Council as the best it had seen. But he emphasises the important part was making it happen. In his first few weeks at Wirral Metropolitan, Mr Dowd carried out a staff skills audit. Because he did not know anyone personally he could choose who to let go, free from accusations of favouritism or vendettas. By August 1999, 200 staff (out of 741) had left.

Data also flowed in about demands for courses. The Wirral is demographically peculiar. It encompasses areas such as Bidston, which has the UK's highest level of child poverty, and an affluent western section consisting largely of wealthier families.

The college discovered that some of its courses were being taught on the wrong campus and were inaccessible. As a result hairdressing and beauty were moved from the poorly connected Carlett Park campus, near Ellesmere Port, to Conway Park campus in central Birkenhead.

The college began getting rid of its excess space, investing the proceeds into improving the rest. Conway Park was refurbished and redesigned.

Students previously walked through the front door into an empty void, now the first signs at the entrance are for a drop-in careers library and student adviser services.

In April, Alan Johnson, further and higher education minister, opened the pound;9m Twelve Quays campus on newly acquired dockside land. Fine art, motor engineering, dance and interior design are among the courses now taught from the stunning construction which overlooks the Mersey opposite Liverpool's docks.

Meanwhile, the college successfully cut costs by pound;3m a year and paid back the final instalment of its pound;13.9m debt in April.

"As for how success has been achieved," Mr Dowd says: "The first thing has been a systematic approach to communication; telling people what we were going to do and then telling them how we are doing. We set up site briefings, a monthly newsletter and intranet information to keep people up to date.

"The college staff had not had a pay award for six years so we built one into the recovery plan, so long as we hit the targets. Not so much to motivate them but more to make them aware the college was achieving something. The whole environment before failed to value or appreciate what staff did.

"We also reported back honestly and accurately to the board how we were doing. Before, what they were told was different from the reality. But if you tell them the truth, and that there's a problem, then the governors start having ownership of the problem.

"Finally, we have been able to invest in resources, to do little things like clean the windows, make sure there were overhead projectors and put up notice boards. Each year we have told the staff the targets and reported back how well we have done.

He says he wants the college to achieve Beacon status and to be in the top 10 per cent. "In 1999 we were seen as a poor provider with a poor reputation. Now we are seen as a major provider."

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