Model factory grows the best
Jim Horrocks calls the college he heads a Yellow Pages college. "This is a factory that produces employment, turning out students for jobs in businesses that advertise in Yellow Pages," he explains.
The principal of Barnfield college in Luton has made quite an impact with that soubriquet. His fingers did the walking last year when it became the first general further education college in the country to be classed as outstanding by the Office for Standards in Education.
David Bell, chief inspector, was clearly impressed when he visited the college last month shortly before launching two now infamous reports, Why colleges succeed and Why colleges fail.
While he described the failure rate of colleges as "a national disgrace", he held up Barnfield as a model for what makes a college win top ratings from inspectors.
He was enamoured by the fact that Barnfield discontinued providing A-levels, leaving that to the also outstanding sixth-form college in the town, to concentrate instead on offering vocational programmes.
"Barnfield came to realise where its strengths lay and ruthlessly pursued them," the chief inspector said. "That tells you that once a college concentrates on its core business and works collaboratively with others, it will be successful."
Mr Horrocks agrees. "When I came here 19 years ago we were doing A-levels but badly. There was an absolutely superb sixth-form college nearby doing them very well. So we delineated the market.
"Most colleges at that time were trying to get into A-levels, but we decided the best thing for a college is to do what it is good at.
"We felt there was no point in squabbling over the best 16-year-olds in town. There was no value at all in trying to compete against each other.
The problem we faced was growing our way out of something we were abandoning.
"You need a vision and focus on how you want to grow the college. It was about developing into areas you do well that are purposeful and meaningful for the community."
He added: "I regard an A-level as a boat that takes you across the sea to university, while a vocational qualification is a car that takes you down the road to a job. They have fitness for very different purposes.
"Many of our students will be earning pound;50,000 a year while those taking the academic route will still be paying off their top-up fees."
When he arrived at Barnfield, it had just 4,000 enrolments. Today it has 30,000. There is a technology centre that has a corridor one-tenth of a mile long, converted from a disused valve factory.
It houses units for motor vehicle engineering, computer engineering, and construction trades, simulating workplace conditions.
He said he could fill another centre the same size and still have a waiting list, and discussions are underway to do just that. Barnfield, he said, has Centre of Vocational Excellence (CoVE) status in five areas - engineering, construction, computing, child health and social care, and business studies -and is now negotiating for a sixth in airport management.
Students, he maintains, let their fingers do the walking into jobs in the locality after completing their courses.
"If you look in Yellow Pages that is a statement of how people earn a living in our area. We actually turn people out to go and earn a living.
There is nothing better for social regeneration than to make people serious wage earners.
"I know that as soon as we agree the sixth CoVE, I will have a head of department come to me asking to be the seventh. When CoVEs were initiated we set ourselves the challenge of getting all our 16 departments to CoVE standard."
Mr Bell put forward three reasons why the south of England has more struggling colleges; more competition from post-16 providers, are less skilled than the northern colleges in understanding the vocational mission, and staff recruitment problems in the high cost-of-living south.
If Barnfield deals with the first two competently, how does it cope with the third? Mr Horrocks explains: "We have to work hard to get staff and are very competitive on the wage front. At present we are just about up to establishment.
"In the past five years we have paid 5 per cent pay rises in four years and a 4 per cent rise in the other. Our salaries are higher than other colleges."
Barnfield also has low annualised teaching hours: 650 compared to an average of 850, to give our staff space in their lives. The college has an internal department for professional development and training of staff.
"We send our staff abroad to keep up with the latest techniques.
"We provide good working conditions, but we still find recruitment and retention a serious struggle." However, one big problem remains: "We do have staff leave to return to industry because of the money on offer."
So how does the college afford it. "By the way we manage our business. We operate in the same funding regime as everybody else. It is just a question of having a different set of priorities."