London's first 'outstanding' college tells Joe Clancy the secrets of its success
The head of the first college in London to be rated outstanding by inspectors wants to stress one thing. "I am the principal of this college because I am a teacher," said Frank McLoughlin. "I don't use the title chief executive."
He makes the point to emphasise his belief that it was by focusing on teaching that his college, City and Islington, earned the top grade from inspectors.
"We employ the best possible professionals to deal with the business side of the college. But our primary focus has always been on teaching and learning."
Leadership and management at the north London college are rated outstanding in a report published today by the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate. City's social inclusion policies and support for students are also rated grade one. Two curriculum areas are classified outstanding, seven good, and one satisfactory.
Mr McLoughlin said: "The key to the success of the college is a genuine sense of shared values, shared purpose and shared commitment. We were the first newly formed college post-incorporation, coming together in 1993 as an amalgamation of four colleges. It was like going on a journey without a map and compass.
"For the first time, the organisation had to take responsibility for its finances, its human resources, IT, everything that had previously been done by the local authority. We recognised we had to be the most efficient and effective business we could be.
"The more effectively we could do that, the more we could liberate our time and resources for teaching and learning."
Mary Rimington, his deputy, said: "All the senior managers here spend a part of the week teaching. This fosters a good relationship between teachers and managers. Two weeks ago I was observed and given a grade. I was nervous, but teachers are observed every year, so why shouldn't I be?"
There was a period when people were seduced by being managers and separated themselves from teachers, she said. But this was not the case at her college.
City and Islington is the first general FE college to be rated outstanding since David Bell, the chief inspector, described the failure rate of colleges as "a national disgrace" last November.
Mr Bell highlighted a north-south divide between colleges, and suggested three reasons why those in the South were more likely to struggle. City certainly suffers from two out of the three - it faces strong competition and has difficulty recruiting staff.
Mr McLoughlin said: "This quadrant of north London is one of the most competitive pockets in the whole of the UK, yet we are over-subscribed. We had 1,700 people come to an open evening. It was like the Harrods sale."
Ms Rimington said of the recruitment problem: "There is a huge issue in attracting teachers in shortage areas. A large number of students from the Institute of Education do teacher training with us. When they get a taste of life here, they enjoy it. Recruiting from that pool is important.
"We can't pay as much as we would like to. A number of our staff travel in from Luton, Bedford and Dunstable because they cannot afford to live in London."
The third issue that left colleges struggling, said Mr Bell, was that in the South, colleges tended to be less clear about their vocational mission.
On this point Mr McLoughlin is unequivocal.
"Of our 3,600 full-time 16-18 students, 2,300 study vocational programmes," he said. "We don't do construction, mechanics or engineering. We do applied, forensic and sports science and specialisms like optics."
The college sees 300 students go on to HE from vocational programmes, with many going to work too.
"We are inclusive and supportive, but are pretty tough on students," said Mr McLoughlin. "The support provided to teachers is an important contributor to the college's success.
"Whenever we identify an area of weakness, we health-check it and support it. We use a teacher with known strengths to support underperforming teaching."
It is now three years since City and Islington set up a teaching and learning unit. Rather than hiring consultants, it had its own quality teaching and learning managers.
"It is about individual intervention, trying to use the good people within the college and bringing together the best practitioners," said Mr McLoughlin. "It is not seen as punitive, but supportive.
"We don't accept sub-standard. We go and we deal with it. But we are nice people."
His deputy interjected: "No, we are hard."