`I am not accountable', says ex-Barnfield boss

23rd January 2015 at 00:00
Sir Peter Birkett denies `starving' troubled college of resources

A college's former principal has hit back at claims he is responsible for its recent "inadequate" Ofsted rating, after being accused of "starving" the organisation of resources by building a federation of academies.

Speaking exclusively to TES, Sir Peter Birkett, former principal and chief executive of Barnfield College in Luton, said he was "saddened and sorry" for what had happened to the college since he left in 2013. But he insisted he was not responsible for its current predicament.

Last week, Barnfield's new chair Robin Somerville attacked the "unacceptable failure" of previous management after a damning Ofsted report found the college had "no key strengths".

Luton South MP Gavin Shuker said Sir Peter had "starved the college of resources", and there have been calls for Sir Peter to return his knighthood, which he received in 2012 for services to further education and the academies movement.

But Sir Peter said the Barnfield Federation, which he oversaw, "led the way" for other FE college federations and was an example of good practice. The group of four primary and six secondary school academies is now set to be split up.

Sir Peter argued that when he resigned in July 2013, the organisation was in "one of the strongest positions ever", with the best success rates in the country for 16- to 18-year-olds.

Although a reduction in government funding and demographic changes had caused financial issues, the college's monetary situation had been good and it had a pound;17 million cash surplus, Sir Peter claimed. "It's easy to blame people when they are gone without knowing the facts," he said. "Over the past 19 months Barnfield has had no stability, no leadership and three different principals in place.

"I'm not accountable for that. I left the organisation on a solid foundation. I have learned since then that not everything was perfect but let's not forget the achievements. Everyone's entitled to their opinion but a lot of the statements made have been inaccurate."

Sir Peter admitted that he should have had a longer handover period and ensured a new principal was in place before he left.

The college was criticised for a compromise agreement in which Sir Peter received two lump sums, an additional month's holiday and his company car. Sir Peter said the agreement was suggested to him by Barnfield's board to prevent him from recruiting federation staff to any new ventures. "In hindsight I wish I hadn't accepted," he added.

Barnfield was subsequently investigated by the Skills Funding Agency and the Education Funding agency over allegations of financial mismanagement, including claiming nearly pound;1 million in government cash for students it had no record of teaching, and pound;1.25 million towards failed projects.

Sir Peter denied there were "ghost students" but admitted the college had had issues with recording attendance. The majority of problems highlighted by the investigations were already known and being dealt with when he left, he insisted.

The former principal, who has 30 years' experience in the FE sector, claimed he knew the governing body was "no longer fit for purpose", adding: "I had been trying for at least two years with legal advice to create a totally new governance structure to meet the demands of the federation, but without success."

An investigation by the FE commissioner, Dr David Collins, has since recommended that at least half the governing body should be replaced.

Sir Peter refused to comment on calls to hand back his knighthood, but said: "Everybody's entitled to their view. I'm not a politician. I came into education to make a difference to young people's lives. That's what drives me."

He stood down from his role as chief executive of international school operator Gems Education in December 2013, blaming the "undue distraction" of the investigations into Barnfield.

He now runs an education and skills consultancy business, is writing a book about FE and skills, and plans to set up a foundation to help disadvantaged young people attend university.

Asked if he had any regrets, Sir Peter said: "In life not everything goes to plan. Not everything at Barnfield was perfect, but everything was done for the right reasons and in the best interests of students and the organisation as a whole.

"I am greatly saddened and sorry for what has happened to Barnfield since I left 19 months ago. It is now time to learn lessons and to move forward for the good of the students, staff and Barnfield as a whole."

`Are the plaudits deserved?'

Gavin Shuker, Labour MP for Luton South, rejects Sir Peter Birkett's explanations and says he "could not walk away from Ofsted's conclusions".

Mr Shuker, pictured, says that staff and parents have been telling him for a long time of their concerns "about resources being taken out of learning at Barnfield College".

He adds: "You can't take that level of resource out of teaching and not expect it to have an impact. Management took an outstanding college and reduced it to this level.

"Ultimately everyone involved over the past five or six years needs to ask whether the plaudits given to them at the start are deserved at the end."

Barnfield timeline

June 2005 Peter Birkett is appointed principal and chief executive of Barnfield College.

June 2007 Barnfield is rated outstanding by Ofsted and becomes the first college to create an academy federation.

November 2011 Then education secretary Michael Gove visits Barnfield and later praises Mr Birkett's work as "truly amazing".

June 2012 Mr Birkett is knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

September 2012 The college is rated satisfactory by Ofsted.

July 2013 Sir Peter resigns from Barnfield.

January 2014 The FE commissioner recommends "major changes" to the college's governance and management.

February 2014 A Skills Funding Agency report highlights a lack of financial oversight from the college governors.

January 2015 Barnfield is rated inadequate by Ofsted.

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