School opportunities expand colleges' horizons
Most principals have a vision, but Pete Birkett at Barnfield College has a diagram. With a click, it is onscreen: the college at the centre and around it a host of satellites.
In the closest orbit are the two academies the college has run in a federation since 2007, more than doubling their GCSE results and taking them from failure to outstanding grades from Ofsted.
Also revolving around the Luton college are a new studio school, which offers 14-year-olds a vocational and enterprise-based curriculum, and an apprenticeship academy.
But Mr Birkett wants to expand the sphere of influence still further: to open academies anywhere in the South East of England, using other colleges as local partners to support previously failing schools.
Further launches might include primary schools and even a fee-paying school. Potentially, a person could spend their entire life in education at institutions operated by Barnfield College if the plans all go ahead - from primary school to higher education and adult learning.
Mr Birkett says: "It was a good fit for the college's mission and values to widen participation, and for our corporate social responsibility. If you believe you've got something you can give back, you should do it. We believed we could transfer the Barnfield DNA to the academies."
It is typical of his heart-on-sleeve style: in presentations he plays a motivational video of the 2003 World Cup-winning England rugby team, whose motto was "our duty is to inspire the nation". Mr Birkett took particular pleasure in forcing a delegation of Australians to sit through it.
But no college can run on idealism, and the federation has offered enough practical benefits over the last two years for dozens of other institutions to wonder whether they should try something similar.
Last September, Hull College opened the Sirius Academy and has since won "accredited schools provider" status, allowing it to run two schools in total. Bradford College has the same status, although Barnfield has gone further with permission to run three or more.
A steady stream of leaders from other colleges are in the visitors' book at Barnfield and more than 30 colleges attend meetings of an FE principals' academy sponsorship group.
The bottom line has been one of the beneficiaries: the turnover of the Barnfield federation is now pound;44 million, up from pound;26.9 million in 200708. Financially, there was some risk, however, since the schools came with debts of around pound;250,000 each.
But that has since been paid off, and the long-term benefits of having a single operation for finance, HR and other backroom services are savings estimated at 10-15 per cent a year, invaluable at a time when public funding is in short supply.
Mr Birkett and staff at the academies argue that there is an education benefit for the college, too. The academies have certainly benefited: they are among the most improved schools in the country and will have pound;60 million of public funds spent on new buildings.
But for the college it is an opportunity to change its intake, to widen participation by ensuring more students are ready for further education, and to increase its enrolment.
Mr Birkett says he wanted results to improve faster across the town as a result of the academies starting their surge up the league tables, with the improvement encouraging everyone to raise their game.
"We've used it to raise attainment across the town. We didn't only want to make the academies successful, we wanted them to raise GCSE results across Luton," he says.
The story so far has been more complex than that, with some of the other schools improving, some stagnating and others declining, although the average has continued to rise.
When the college took over the academies, it did not extend the freedom for students and more adult ethos of FE to younger students. Instead, a "back to basics" approach to discipline was brought in.
Where the college influence is felt is in the redesigned curriculum and its meticulous use of data to track student performance.
At the Barnfield South Academy, for instance, after a bespoke, compressed key stage 3 curriculum designed to leave more time for GCSEs, students can choose from three paths.
There is a fast-track academic path, which allows students to start level 3 qualifications by 16, a vocational path mixing GCSEs and Btecs, and one concentrating on lower-level qualifications to prepare students for work- based training.
By collaborating with the college and the other academy, it can offer a bewildering array of 45 qualifications, something few schools would be able to match.
"We like to call it `the school of choice'," says Catherine Barr, associate principal at the academy.
Monthly monitoring of students' expected grades is coupled with early interventions. Mr Birkett recounts how he asked maths teachers to hold Saturday catch-up classes, but they refused.
So he held them himself, and the next week the teachers followed suit. Similarly, during the cold snap, all the staff pitched in by shovelling snow to try to keep the school's steep, hilly site open.
Now, everyone at the school is in on the act. Ms Barr says even her PA acts as a mentor to some students: she walked in on an impromptu coursework study session being carried out in her office.
Staff did not welcome every change, but 85 per cent of the original failing school's staff transferred, and two years later, around 60 per cent remain at an academy that has been judged good, with outstanding features.
Transforming schools in a deprived area has not been a smooth ride. Mr Birkett recalls that during its Ofsted inspections, a female student at the Barnfield South Academy took a drug overdose.
Mr Birkett also concedes there is a risk of becoming over-extended, but he believes the college can put in place a management structure to handle up to 10 schools.
When the academies begin to take sixth-form pupils next year, he will also be in the unusual position of competing with himself - although the intention is for the college to stick to its vocational strengths while the academies pursue mainly A-levels.
If the federation continues to succeed and to grow, and if other colleges can replicate the model, it has the potential to transform the reputation of colleges as centres of education management expertise.
Whereas once colleges might have been unfairly stereotyped as places for people who did not succeed at school, they could become the places for schools to go in search of success.