Reach for the skies, not the stopwatch

Bexley College, in Kent, performs satisfactorily in all areas of teaching and management, say inspectors - just two years after the college was judged inadequate. Every one of the intervening 24 months has been used to the maximum to achieve a turnaround that puts it well on the road to becoming a first-rate centre of vocational learning that meets the needs of the local economy.

Even before the first Ofsted report appeared, our hard-working staff had embarked on a mission which matches the one set out for colleges in the recent further education white paper: namely that we should help our students gain the skills and qualifications needed for sustainable employment.

Our curriculum has changed significantly to reflect Sir Andrew Foster's vision. It is particularly relevant to a college such as Bexley, which is situated in a borough where economic prosperity is conspicuous in the south while large pockets of deprivation remain in the north. In the past two years, we have also upped our game for local and regional businesses with a new Transform Skills service which offers employers training at a time, place and pace that suits them.

But all this requires time that may in future be denied to principals and staff who have experienced a disappointing outcome to an inspection.

Paragraph 5.4 of the white paper proposes that in most cases a college will be granted only one year to secure the required improvements in respect of the new key performance indicators. And, even during the course of the year, funding can be withheld and permanent changes to the leadership and management imposed.

No one would argue with the Government's stated objective to eliminate failure - because the interests of students and local employers are too important to tolerate a culture of inadequacy and coasting. But to avoid a gung-ho approach to implementing 5.4, some crucial factors need to be considered.

For a start, the psychology of failure is like bereavement for the college's staff. They are often angry and in denial at first. It takes time to get the mind right for improvement and then to achieve better practice through training and observation. For some, it requires confidence-building over the course of more than 12 months.

If people can't be changed, then the college has to change its people. The latest Ofsted report credits our "refreshed management", but due process has to be observed. Precious management time cannot be wasted on defending actions in employment tribunals, and recruitment of more able staff is difficult in this market.

Some skills for teaching and management are in very short supply. That means we have to recruit from overseas in shortage areas such as plumbing.

In the meantime, a college may have to rely on supply lecturers. This can be dispiriting for the students, particularly when the quality of agency support can vary.

Improvement requires resources - both capital and revenue. Some of these have to be bid for, and this also takes time. Furthermore the path of change must be documented and communicated to staff, students and stakeholders to ensure everyone is on board, including governors.

Finally, there is an inevitable time lag between making the changes and getting results. In this context, the time of year of an inspection which registers failure is critical. If it is late in an academic year, there is little chance of putting changes into practice for the September intake.

And with the September start not right, results will be affected, so one cannot prove that students' work has improved until the second year, especially when level 3 (A-level equivalent) courses involve two-year programmes.

I believe that greater specialism and contestability will bring more positive improvements in colleges than will the threat of a team of advisers descending upon them, as proposed in the FE white paper. The latter may well make for good public relations, but the gift of a little extra time may serve better the interests of the college, students and local community.

Bexley College has just announced an exciting partnership with L'Oreal to launch the first foundation degree exclusively focused on salon management.

For a global cosmetics giant to choose us speaks volumes about what we have achieved and what we are capable of achieving post-Foster and in the light of the Leitch review of Britain's skills needs.

It would be wrong if similar partnerships did not come to fruition in future because someone had pressed a stop-watch after 12 months, leaving a large amount of hard work unfinished.

Bridget Boreham is principal of Bexley College, in Kent

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you