In the car park, we are all equal

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Principal says an egalitarian ethos has helped South Cheshire college become the best in the country, reports Joe Clancy.

The headline on the front page of the paper was succinct and clear. "South Cheshire college is the best college in the country," it stated, in bold type.

It was not a real newspaper, but a mock-up prepared by principal David Collins. He brandished it at a management meeting shortly after his appointment, 11 years ago.

Sceptical glances were exchanged. Many assumed the mock paper was just a motivational ploy.

At the time, South Cheshire college was a pretty average institution in Crewe, a town suffering from the decline of traditional engineering industries.

But last Friday, the principal's vision became reality when inspectors published a report on the college that had "outstanding" written all over it.

The word appeared no less than 13 times as the college was awarded 13 grade one ratings for provision, the most received by a college in inspection history.

Ten of the 13 curriculum areas were rated outstanding, with the other three receiving grade two ratings for "good" provision.

There were further outstanding ratings for leadership and management, student support, and educational and social inclusion.

South Cheshire is actually a tertiary college, because Crewe has no schools with sixth forms. But more than three-quarters of its 11,200 students are aged 19 and over, and it provides courses ranging from basic literacy and numeracy to higher education.

So how did a college which once languished in mid-table to be described by David Sherlock, the chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, as probably the best in the country.

To Dr Collins, the remedy was simple. "We have a very clear aim," he said.

"To be the best." And to achieve that aim he sets high targets for his staff.

He expects every lesson to merit a grade one "excellent" or a grade two "very good" in an inspection. "What may be satisfactory to an inspector is not satisfactory to us," he said. "We set the bar higher, in terms of our expectations, than other colleges.

"If staff are not performing at the top two levels, they are supported and re-observed. Our staff development team support them to make them better.

We pair them up with good teaching staff.

"One of our values is that management is more concerned with guidance and support than with regulation and control. We expect to support people rather than tell them what to do. The staff are very comfortable with that.

I don't think they feel threatened."

Such high demands have not had staff rushing for the exit doors. "We have had ten years of stability and staff feel very secure, which is important.

"It is difficult to perform well when you feel under threat from cutbacks and closures and redundancies," he added.

"We have a very open communication system. There are no hidden agendas and staff can easily access minutes of governors meetings or financial information."

Equality among staff is also important. Support staff have the same basic contracts as teaching staff as far as working hours, holidays, private medical care, and bonuses are concerned.

"There are no reserved spaces in the car park," he said. "It emphasises that everybody has their part to play in making the institution successful."

All teaching staff undergo two formal observations a year, one that focuses on their general performance and the other on a specific activity to be developed.

"This year it has been using ICT in the classroom," he explained. "Next year, it is demonstrating equality and diversity."

Recruiting good staff is also a priority. "We spend a considerable amount of time recruiting the right staff," he said. "All applicants have to teach in front of a panel before they are appointed."

Another strategy is to seek out the best practices in other colleges and adopt them.

"We look at other colleges to see what they are doing better than us, and look at how we can incorporate it here," he added.

"All teaching staff also spend at least one week in another college or in industry every two years," he said. "I also do consultancy work in other colleges that have been in trouble. Even colleges in recovery will have good ideas."

South Cheshire now expects to be much in demand with visitors from other colleges. "Part of our philosophy is to share our good practice," said the college's director of ICT, Nigel Peet.

"After our last inspection we were inundated. One college brought its whole senior management team here. We put together a roadshow taking a presentation on a tour of other colleges."

Mike Finney, school liaison co-ordinator, said: "It is a combination of clear leadership, excellent facilities and a superb staff. There are heavy demands on staff, but they are always willing to go that extra mile to deliver."

But Steve Twigg, a NATFHE representative, voiced one cautionary note.

He said: "The college is very driven and the pressures do translate into casualties among staff."

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