Share option on bottled success

29th September 2006 at 01:00
An outstanding college is spreading the word on its particular expertise

Jane Machell likes to share a comment she heard from an Ofsted inspector:

"Whatever you have in this college, bottle it up and sell it."

Now the principal and her senior managers are about to do just that. After an outstanding inspection report this summer, Alton College, in Hampshire, has been enlisted by the new Quality Improvement Agency to help others raise their game.

The agency was set up by the Government in April with a budget of more than pound;92 million and a remit to promote excellence and innovation in further education.

It has begun by harnessing the expertise in top-grade colleges and building a small army of improvement advisers who will go in and support struggling institutions.

Its improvement adviser service has so far recruited top principals and managers from 25 organisations. The agency is also funding small projects that allow management in beacon colleges to work with other institutions on common issues.

Kate Anderson, the agency's director of improvement and strategy, said it wants to be seen as a kind of dating agency for FE, brokering between colleges to help leaders to support each other.

"It's not bringing in consultants to do their jobs for them," she said.

"It's about identifying people who are experienced in the sector, who will work alongside colleagues to help them identify the issues, do action planning, mentor and monitor."

So what does Alton College have to bottle and sell? In May, it became one of 6 out of 86 inspected under the new common framework to receive a grade 1 (outstanding) in all five inspection areas.

The college, situated in an affluent area of the county, opened in 1978 and was the first purpose-built sixth-form college in the country. Today, it occupies a large modern campus overlooking rolling fields, that is reminiscent of a university campus. The atmosphere is calm, both in lessons and for those working in the college's many study areas.

It has 1,750 students aged 16 to 18, and about 1,900 adults studying part-time. Students come from up to 20 miles away, some from neighbouring Surrey. A broad curriculum is offered, including foundation and entry-level courses, A-levels, Btec first diplomas, the International Baccalaureate and foundation degrees.

Two years ago, the college received a beacon award for inclusive learning.

At present, it takes 36 students with a range of severe disabilities from Treloar, a nearby specialist college.

Success rates are high on nearly all courses. This year, A-level students achieved a pass rate of almost 99 per cent. In the past four years, pound;10m has been spent on buildings and facilities, including up-to-the-minute art and music and science blocks. There is one computer to every two students and a large, modern learning resources centre staffed by learning supervisors.

All students have access to an online "virtual learning environment" which is accessible from home. This summer, A-level students were able to log on just after midnight to get their results.

Ofsted praised the college's leadership, management and governance.

Inspectors reported that communication is good and staff at all levels are committed to the college's mission.

"There is a strong culture ofpromoting achievement and the development of rounded young people," the report said. The college's culture of rigorous self-assessment has served it well, and so has its leadership style. Ms Machell says she and her senior management team trust staff and encourage them to take risks.

"If you're going to be a confident organisation that moves on, you have to move away from the top leadership being the people who everybody waits for answers from," she said.

"Yes, set direction, aims, culture and values, but have the confidence to say to people, 'Go away and try it out. Make mistakes - not too often - but go and try something new.'"

The college has received agency funding for a project to work and share good practice with the senior management and departmental heads of two other colleges. As part of another scheme, its managers will go into under-performing colleges to support their leadership teams.

Ms Machell says it is a case of helping other colleges to help themselves.

"We make it very clear that what we don't do is tell people what to do,"

she says.

"There's no one single model. People invite you in for all sorts of reasons. It might be that they have an inspection next year and ask us how to get grade 1s. Actually, that comes from yourself. Yes, there are things you can do - quality improvement, quality assurance, people development and culture. But at the end of the day you have to make your own journey."

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