Alan Evans has performed the FE equivalent of triple bypass heart surgery on his faculty (which has more than 1,000 students) at City of Bristol College. "I wanted to be radical, to provoke change and bring together factions in college," he says.
When he took up his post as head of art, design, media and performing arts three years ago, Mr Evans inherited a huge budget deficit, a portfolio of more than 100 programmes, separate, autonomous schools riddled with rivalries and duplication of resources. To aggravate matters, the department has had to continue to work in a decaying Grade 1-listed Victorian orphanage while preparing to move into purpose-built facilities next year.
"Radical surgery was the only option: the patient was dying," says Mr Evans.
The department decided to review its curriculum, to personalise student programmes, create a structure for mixing and matching modules and to maximise its human resources. It has now been operating a modular system for a year.
The first step was to drop 75 courses that attracted very few students. Then, to deliver the modular programmes, staff devised units on what they saw as the emerging national specifications. "This year, it's a lot better because the awarding body Edexcel has come up with QCA-approved definitions, so we can put some legitimacy to what we're doing," Mr Evans says.
His next decision was to change the resourcing. No longer was it allocated to courses; rather, it was calculated for subject areas, while staff tams were put in charge of subjects, not courses.
To provide cohesion, the faculty was underpinned with a strong tutorial system. Students have two tutorials a week in groups of four or five to allow for peer group learning. Only main grade lecturers can be personal tutors.
This system is supported by an assessment regime: at the end of term, a week's break in learning allows personal tutors to make an evaluation of each student's portfolio of work. Subject specialists then provide an assessment grade.
Mr Evans has replaced technicians with assistant lecturers (grades 1 and 2) who oversee all practical routines and demonstrations. "Job demarcation and clarity of responsibility is essential," he says. "It's about people working seamlessly as a team, but with different levels of expertise and recognition of one another's boundaries."
At first he timetabled staff to maximum capacity, but soon found that their hours could be cut down. They are encouraged to do their administration and preparation work from home. From September, they will be equipped with laptop computers to help.
The response from students has been "overwhelming", while staff have found the transition "painful but worthwhile". Mr Evans insists that he accidentally hit on the way in which colleges are being encouraged to develop: the modular system and individual student timetables.
"External verifiers have said I'm lucky to be ahead of the game because that's what art and design will be facing."